Saturday, May 03, 2008

Disorder: Increasingly, anything you do that annoys me ...

In “Psychology: The Hard Truth About a Soft Science”, Selwyn Duke observes,
I recently read about psychiatrists who are labeling the desire to engage in excessive text messaging a mental disorder. Then there is "Muscle Dysmorphia," or the obsessive belief that one isn't muscular enough; "celebriphilia," the strong desire for amorous relations with a celebrity; "Intermittent Explosive Disorder," or road rage; "Sibling Rivalry Disorder"; "Mathematics Disorder"; "Caffeine Related Disorder"; and "Expressive Writing disorder," to cite just a handful of the hundreds of made-up conditions in the DSM. And every time a new variety is conjured up, psychology's market and earning potential increases. I have to wonder, though, what do they call the obsession with labeling behaviors mental disorders? Some might call it greed.
Actually, it’s mostly a way of gaining social power, isn’t it? If I’m giving a talk and you are text messaging people who interest you more, I can get my revenge by getting your behaviour classified as a “disorder.” Of course, you could do the same to me. But we both need to qualify as psychiatrists first.


When "secular" means "materialist"

Zachary Gappa, director of the Center for Research for a Just Society, observes that the Google search engine folk seem to have bought into a definition of “secular” that does not mean “no one perspective rules” but “religious perspectives are excluded.” For example,

The Christian Institute sought to purchase an advertisement from Google, "so that whenever the word 'abortion' was typed into the popular search engine, its link would appear on the side of the screen." Google refused this request, stating, "At this time, Google policy does not permit the advertisement of web sites that contain 'abortion and religion-related content'".

If Google had simply declined to allow advertisements involving the controversial topic of abortion, their decision would be completely understandable and fully within their rights as a private company. By removing a controversial topic from their advertisements they would not be discriminating against one religious view in favor of another. But this is not what they did.

Instead, Google accepted "adverts for abortion clinics, secular pro-abortion sites and secularist sites which attack religion," while refusing to accept The Christian Institute's "religious" ad. They did not shun the topic of abortion—just the "religious" view on abortion. In other words, they have discriminated against those whose view on abortion is influenced by their belief in God in favor of those whose view on abortion is influenced by their belief that God does not exist.

The organization has filed suit, but they are one of many straws in the wind right now, and not the largest.


Politics, religion, and civil rights - a teetering balance worldwide

Recently, I wrote about my friend Mustafa Akyol’s response to the controversial film Fitna. Another reader, Mohammed, notes that Fitna’s renditions of the Koran are not very accurate, according to a scholar to whom he directs my attention.

I’m no Arabist, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Atheist authors often quote the Bible out of context, ignoring the history, and I suppose that many can play at that game, and use the Koran too.

To show how complex real life is, Ezra Levant, the Jewish lawyer who is fighting for free speech in Canada, says that he prefers the Canadian Muslim Congress to the Canadian Jewish Congress on this key issue. (You would have to live here to understand in detail, but basically, Canadian leftists ally with politicized Islamists to undermine free speech - the two groups have nothing in common expect their disdain for things like free speech. And groups that lean left tend to buy into the package, without considering the big picture.)

While we’re here, here’s Mustafa’s contribution, along with that of a number of other thinkers, to a symposium on Turkey’s future:
First of all, Turkey’s secularism is one of a kind, and it has almost no resemblance to the separation of church and state in the United States. In Turkey, secularism means that the state can dominate and control religion. Secularism protects only the state, in other words, not religion.
Turkey’s secularist establishment even speaks of the need to protect the society from religion. “The secularism principle,” Turkey’s Constitutional Court argued in a 1989 decision, “requires that the society should be kept away from thoughts and judgments that are not based on science and reason.” (This is also quoted in the indictment against the AKP.)

Turkey’s secularists abhor “moderate Islam” as much as radical Islam. Indeed, they see any sort of religious influence on society as a threat to “modernity.” According to Princeton historian Sükrü Hanioglu, the extreme secularism of the Turkish Republic is rooted in the “vulgar materialism” of late-19th-century Germany, which heralded a post-religious age of “science and reason.” This philosophy, which was emulated by some of the Young Turks and was inherited by most of their republican successors, has become the cornerstone of the official state ideology. That ideology, often called “Kemalism,” also includes a very staunch nationalism, a belief in a protected and state-regulated economy, and, as foreign visitors to Turkey will notice, a cult of personality created around the county’s founder, Kemal Atatürk.

This ideology tolerates no “deviation,” and therefore political parties in Turkey need not be “Islamist” to clash with the secularist establishment.

Yes! Many people worldwide do not understand that secularism in North America has NOT historically been the same thing as “laicisme” (routinely translated as “secularism”) in France or Kemalism in Turkey.

Secularism in North America has - at least historically - meant that church and state were separated for the benefit of both. Separation of church and state means, among other things, that the government is not supposed to dictate to religious bodies what they should think, say, or do beyond protecting the basic civil rights of members of a religious organization.

Unfortunately, in the wake of globalization, there are dark hints that the less benign French approach may be gaining ground in North America, and we can all only hope that reason will prevail in Turkey.

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Fred on everything, including evolution: Hot air about big brains

Columnist Fred Reed offers a send-up of speculative theories about the evolution of large brains in humans, “Circling the Paradigm: Protecting the Theory at Any Cost” (April 21, 2008):
A standard theory among a large school of evolutionists is that intelligence is low among people in sub-Saharan Africa, where humanity apparently originated, because life in tropical climates doesn't impose great intellectual demands; when people migrated to colder climates, as for example in Europe, they had to evolve higher intelligence to survive. To most people it seems obvious that higher intelligence would be useful anywhere at all, so why, they ask, didn't it arise below the Sahara?

Hart replies that larger brains carry not only benefits but also costs and, by implication, that in some places the costs are greater than the advantages. The costs of larger brains are, he says:

1) Larger brains require larger amounts of energy.

2) Larger brains require larger heads, which create strains on the muscular and skeletal structure.

3) Larger brains (and larger heads) require wider female pelvises and the wider pelvises result in less efficiency in walking and running."
This is evolutionary boilerplate, and also absurd. The two are often seen keeping company.

I won’t even try to keep up with Fred in debunking the “big brains” nonsense, but here is an interesting fact: Size of brain does not necessarily correlate with intelligence in humans. See these Mindful Hack stories, for example:

How much brain does a man really need? Not much.

Also: How much brain do you need? Could you use that space for something else?

While we are here, it is worth noting that some creatures, like whales, have much bigger brains than humans, but have not used them to develop thinking faculties similar to humans.

My own view is that when people believe in mechanistic theories, they tend to reach for them as an alternative to other theories, whether they are useful or not. Where they are not useful, they spin them out a little more, as in Fred’s hilarious examples. Here is more of Fred on Everything.

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Atheism: Its attractions for science bigwigs

Mathematician and author of The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (and of much irrepressible mischief) David Berlinski explains for Pajamas Media the attraction of atheism for science bigwigs,
It takes no very refined analytic effort to determine why Soviet Commissars should have regarded themselves as atheists. They were unwilling to countenance a power higher than their own. Who knows what mischief Soviet citizens might have conceived had they imagined that the Politburo was not, after all, infallible?

By the same token, it requires no very great analytic effort to understand why the scientific community should find atheism so attractive a doctrine. At a time when otherwise sober individuals are inclined to believe that too much of science is too much like a racket, it is only sensible for scientists to suggest aggressively that no power exceeds their own.

Many might be tempted to dismiss such a view from a clergyman but Berlinski is an ironic agnostic. Here’s a sample of his approach from his book page at Amazon:
Has anyone provided a proof of God’s inexistence?
Not even close.

Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here?
Not even close.

Have the sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life?
Not even close.

Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought?Close enough.

Has rationalism in moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral?
Not close enough.

Has secularism in the terrible twentieth century been a force for good?
Not even close to being close.

Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy of thought and opinion within the sciences?
Close enough.

Does anything in the sciences or in their philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational?
Not even ballpark.

Is scientific atheism a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt?
Dead on.

Berlinski does not dismiss the achievements of western science. The great physical theories, he observes, are among the treasures of the human race. But they do nothing to answer the questions that religion asks, and they fail to offer a coherent description of the cosmos or the methods by which it might be investigated.

I found his book both hilarious and sobering, and will link to the review (when I write it - soon).

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Animal minds: But does the animal think it is art?

In response to a recent post on examples of animal art, a kind reader writes,
My memory of the stories concerning this animal are to the effect that Congo would "finish" his paintings; that is, he would stop at some point, and when his trainer, zoologist and surrealist painter Desmond Morris, tried to coax him to continue, he would instead -- in anger or frustration -- destroy the paintings.

So did Congo consider his paintings "art"? Perhaps not, but to him they were clearly more than just random markings on paper or canvas, made only to please his trainer.

Well, okay, but there is a vast spectrum between Congo considering them more than random markings on paper and Congo considering them art. And what I don’t know is where Congo’s perceptions fit.

Some thoughts:

The fact that an animal doesn’t like to be disturbed while completing a routine can be due to a number of causes - the most common being, in my experience, that the animal feels internal pressure to complete the routine, and treats interruptions as a form of hostility. The animal may or may not have any interest in or awareness of the outcome of the routine. The routine itself must be completed. A number of otherwise friendly cats I have known would attack a human who interrupted a kneading or toileting routine. Some dogs behave similarly.

The fact that Desmond Morris was Congo’s trainer does not fill me with confidence, because he was one of a long line of people are naked apes enthusiasts (or, to turn it around, enthusiasts for the idea that apes are people too).

Many of us doubt that the ape analogy tells us much about humans, and - more topically - have mixed feelings about how much the ape enthusiasts’ well-meaning ideas really help protect apes. Why isn’t it okay for apes just to be apes?

The animal I have lived with for most of my life is the cat, and I am very glad that cats are not close enough to humans in body shape or genetics that very many people have written books that could be titled “Man: The naked cat.” Cats have suffered much at human hands, but not that indignity - not so far. It is still possible for cats to be quite different from humans in their mental states and behaviour without any attempt made to revise the record to suit various agendas.

All that said, recently I got one of Rupert Sheldrake’s books on animal minds from the library, notably Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999). I will either review it here or link here to a review elsewhere.

For what it’s worth, I have no doubt that many animals have specific mental and perceptual skills far superior to those of humans. But the felt need to map those skills onto specifically human tendencies like abstraction and metacognition seems like a byway. It doesn’t advance the understanding of either humans or animals much. For example, cats often have a much better sense of direction than humans, but they do not draw maps. They just go home. In some cases, you would be just as well off to follow the cat as the global positioning satellite.

Other animal minds stories from The Mindful Hack:

Researchers ask: What does it mean to be an animal?

Deception in humans and animals: The differences

Medical journal published article on cat's death predictions

Also, at Design of Life blog: Can animals do math? How much should wwe believe of what we read?

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