Saturday, September 29, 2012

Revolutions are doomed to fail: they can radically transform the political structure, but they can't radically transform human nature.

Friday, September 28, 2012

"The Bro finds himself at the Party, thrown into it - no one asked him if he wanted to rage..."

An entertainingly brilliant summary of Heidegger's Being and Time in hip-hop style by Philosophy Bro.

You ask me to promise you something that is not in my nature to do, and you know it too. 
Shall I assume then that what you really want is for me to lie?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

My op-ed in today's The News:


Our Collective Psychopathology 


Sigmund Freud contemplated a question of which I am reminded, as in the aftermath of the violent protests we witnessed last Friday. Freud wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents: “But there is a question which I can hardly evade. If the development of civilisation has such far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilisations, or some epochs of civilisation-possibly the whole of mankind-have become ‘neurotic’?”

Freud restricts himself to the case of neurosis, an abandoned psychiatric term referring to emotional and psychological distress without a loss of contact with reality (in contrast to psychosis, which does involve such a loss of contact). However, let us not limit ourselves to a particular category of disorders and ask the question: Can a society collectively be said to suffer from something akin to a ‘mental illness’?

I cannot deny that from a scientific point of view the question stands on shaky ground, but the ease with which we employ psychiatric diagnoses to describe the state of our nation only makes one wonder. A reading of recent op-eds will reveal our society to be suffering from “collective psychosis,” riddled with “delusions” of “paranoia” and “grandiosity,” possessing personality traits of “psychopathy” and “narcissism,” and subject to “cognitive dissonance.” No doubt it is in part due to the journalistic tendency to use novel and big words, but it is also the case that the horrific events we get to witness on a daily basis for the last couple of years seem to resist any other description.

Just as rational thoughts, instincts, conflicting emotions, and various other dynamic forces of the mind are unified by an individual’s consciousness, there is a set of shared beliefs and moral attitudes which function as a unifying force within an otherwise heterogeneous and divided society. Durkheim referred to it as Collective Consciousness. (And may we be justified – with a nod to Jung – in speaking of a collective unconscious as well, the hidden puppeteer behind many of our outer motions?) Sifting through the contents of our collective consciousness for evidence of psychopathology will yield much.

We are a nation plagued by apathy in behaviour when it comes to making any positive change, but are often animated by a murderous self-destructive rage. We are paranoid and mistrustful, indulging in bizarre conspiracy theories of our endless persecution at the hands of America, India and Israel. At the same time there are the grandiose delusions of our being the fortress of Islam, because we are armed with the Islamic bomb; that we would have revived the golden age of Islam were it not for the vile machinations of Hindus and Jews! We feel the pain of our French sisters being deprived of their right to use the veil, but are psychopathic when it comes to inflicting and justifying violence on our own religious minorities. We are forever blaming foreign hands for our own misdeeds, and are blind to our own corruption. There is much that we have repressed and much that we are repressing. The historical circumstances surrounding the traumatic birth of our nation, the reasons for the separation of East Pakistan, the stern puritanical upbringing of the Zia era and the artificial construction of a national religious identity, divorced from our ancient roots of Gandhara and Indus, provide optimal conditions for collective madness.

Be this lunacy or folly, at the end of the day the question is: what can be done about it. Is there any remedy? The burden of this lies perhaps on the shoulders of our intellectuals. Just as a psychotherapist identifies the cognitive distortions in a patient’s thoughts, our scholars have the task of pointing out the errors of our national narratives. Just as a psychoanalyst digs out repressed and traumatic events from a patient’s past and brings them to light, our academics have to unearth the history of our nation that we are forever trying to bury and deny. The intelligentsia is already engaged in this endeavour, I do not doubt, but either their voice is trapped in an insulated bubble of English op-eds and social media, or ours is an insanity beyond cure.


The writer is a doctor. Email: awaisaftab@gmail.com

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

#TS287 prompts: Eye, Love, Ewe.

He made sheep's eyes at her throughout the party, only to be pepper-sprayed when he asked her out. 'Psychopath,' she declared. #TS287

#TS288 Prompts: Dear, Deer, Derrière.

"Ahū chashm" He eulogized. She giggled. "Say something nice in Urdu abt my ass now." He wondered if the seduction may yet be salvaged #TS288

#TS289 Prompts: Text, Spies, Homicide.

Queen's spies intercepted the letter from the King's mistress; she perfumed it with poison and sealed it with a kiss. #TS289

#TS290 Prompts: Schadenfreude, airplanes, Paris Hilton.

'Boobs can only take you that far.' She gloated as the bimbo made a spectacular fool of herself. 'Crash & burn, baby, crash & burn.' #TS290

#TS291 Prompts: Pursuit, Conquest, Tiny purple fishes. 

'I will sift the seven seas to win your heart.' 'And I will run laughing through your fingers, like Clapton's tiny purple fishes.' #TS291

#TS292 Prompts: Coffin, Meteors, Cabotage.

"Look mom, in the sky!" "They are fallen angels sent to earth in burning coffins." "Why is it so beautiful then?" "Sin always is." #TS292

#TS293 Prompts: Retrograde, Riverdance, Remonstrance.

Rowing up the stony waterway was to risk death's reproach but river-dance was their ancestral wooing ritual, and he was a man in love #TS293

Interview with The Pakistani Spectator:

Would you please tell us something about you and your site?

I am Awais Aftab, a doctor and aspiring psychiatrist. My blog A Myth in Creation (http://awaisaftab.blogspot.com) has been the repository of my intellectual, artistic and literary explorations for the past six years. It has a definite philosophical bent, which has become more prominent over time.

I'm wondering what some of your memorable experiences are with blogging?

The most memorable experiences have to do with interacting and meeting with other bloggers, some of whom went on to become very dear friends and have significantly influenced the course of my inner life.

If you had to describe life as a blogger in a Twitter message (140 characters) what would you say?

I would borrow the words of Maverick Philosopher, with some modification to fit within 140 characters: blogging is a vehicle for the relentless quotidian questing for sense and truth, without which some of us would find life meaningless.

What do you think sets your site apart from others?

I think the philosophical and quasi-philosophical outlook sets it apart from others within the Pakistani blogosphere. (To be honest, I am no expert or academic in this regard, and my blog cannot compete with various international blogs devoted to philosophy. I am a self-taught student of the subject, and my blog is a means for me to reach out to those with a similar interest with no other pretensions.)

If you could choose one characteristic you have that brought you success in life, what would it be?

I feel I’d be a poor judge of my own success, and I do not consider myself to be a ‘success’ in life, not yet anyway. The little I have accomplished is a result of steadfastness, a striving for authenticity and the invaluable help of well-wishing friends.

What was the happiest and gloomiest moment of your life?

I have been the happiest and gloomiest in love.

How bloggers can benefit from blogs financially?

Paid advertisements appears to be the most convenient way, but it really depends on how much traffic a blog gets. For most bloggers it is not sufficient enough to be of significant financial value.

What role can bloggers of the world play to make this world friendlier and less hostile?

I have written this elsewhere as well. We cannot suddenly and radically transform a society; nor can we create a society out of nothing. We have to work with what we have got, and what we have got is a small but significant sphere of influence. We have to begin with changing our micro-cosmos and building our lives, whatever we can, as much as we can.

Who are your top five favourite bloggers?

Ah, tough to pick. Wouldn’t make a rank list, but these are five blogs, among many others, that I regularly follow, can relate to and appreciate.


Is there one observation or column or post that has gotten the most powerful reaction from people?

My posts on religious criticism (Muslim Feminism, recently) generally get the most reaction, but that, I feel, is because it is a topic that many people are drawn into discussing, in contrast to possibly better posts on philosophy that may be too abstract for popular taste.

Have you ever become stunned by the uniqueness of any blogger?

Karachi Khatmal (http://karachikhatmal.blogspot.com/) is pretty unique, I'd say. I can mention two more blogs: Zunn (http://bhaichod.tumblr.com/) for it's aesthetic quality and Iblees (http://iblees.wordpress.com/) for the splendid humor.

What is the future of blogging?

The blogging culture has witnessed a tremendous increase and one can reasonably expect it to grow more in future. I suspect that the shape and manner of mainstream blogging will change, given the rise of twitter and tumblr. However, I am sure the conventional blogging format will continue to exist, even if it no longer remains the popular format.

You have also got a blogging life, how has it directly affected both your personal and professional life?

The influence on my personal life has been tremendous, primarily because the interaction with other bloggers has provided me with much-needed, like-minded company, and some of these friends have significantly affected my worldview. Blogging has given me more confidence in myself and at the same time more humility by making me mindful of my fallibility.

What are your future plans?

I will continue to learn more about philosophy and related subjects; the blog will continue to serve as a reflection of my intellectual development. Professionally I plan to specialize in Psychiatry, preferably from abroad. Personally I hope to be with the girl I love and whom I am currently engaged to.

Any Message you want to give to the readers of The Pakistani Spectator?

Live authentically because a life is more convincing than an argument.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Excerpts from 'Breaking Up the Echo', an insightful article by Cass R. Sunstein on the psychology of changing minds:

"It is well known that when like-minded people get together, they tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. The same kind of echo-chamber effect can happen as people get news from various media.... The remedy for easing such polarization, here and abroad, may seem straightforward: provide balanced information to people of all sides.... Unfortunately, evidence suggests that balanced presentations — in which competing arguments or positions are laid out side by side — may not help. At least when people begin with firmly held convictions, such an approach is likely to increase polarization rather than reduce it.

Can anything be done? There is no simple term for the answer, so let’s make one up: surprising validators.

People tend to dismiss information that would falsify their convictions. But they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss. People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it. In such cases, their reaction is not, “how predictable and uninformative that someone like that would think something so evil and foolish,” but instead, “if someone like that disagrees with me, maybe I had better rethink.”

Our initial convictions are more apt to be shaken if it’s not easy to dismiss the source as biased, confused, self-interested or simply mistaken."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Thomas Nagel has recently reviewed Alvin Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism for The New York Review of Books. While Plantinga's argument for faith's epistemic validity leaves me unconvinced (as presented by Nagel), the problems he identifies with naturalism do indeed merit recognition. (Nagel's own upcoming book Mind and Cosmos tries to grapple with these very problems.) Despite being an atheist, Nagel's review of the book is heart-warming and justly charitable:

"The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives."

#TS279 prompts: Lubricious, Vulpine, Roué.

"I fancy a dominatrix." The old roué grinned. "I'll keep the handcuffs ready," the lubriciously dressed cop flashed a vulpine smile. #TS279

Prompts for #TS280: Wine, Women, Jealousy.

He thought the ménage à trois would only improve in flavor with time, like a Vintage wine, but jealousy turned everything sour #TS280

Prompts for #TS281 Crispy fried chicken, Epiphany, A venereal disease

At KFC she experienced an epiphanic vision of Jesus that changed her life forever; later it turned out to be a case of neurosyphilis #TS281

Prompts for #TS282: Vernacular, Spectacular, Furcular

The twins appeared to be licking their forks as if speaking to each other in a code language. "How spectacular!" mummy exclaimed. #TS282

Prompts for #TS284: Cyanide, Sun-eyed, Choke.

The kiss was bitter as cyanide. "Not ur sun-eyed girl any more." She disclosed with sugary frigidity & left him choking on the ground #TS284

Prompts for #TS285: Precocious, Prefix, Puerile.

The frenzied engagement of the precocious mathematician with the puerile fashionista was only the prefix to an insane marriage #TS285

Prompts for #TS286: Birds, Ruins, Angst.

The branch cracked. The nest toppled to the ground, smashing all the eggs, leaving the angst-ridden ornithologist with suicidal guilt #TS286

Monday, September 17, 2012

@monichirrups_ asked on twitter: what does Camus mean when he says, 'The absurd… does not lead to God… the absurd is sin without God.'? 

Camus is referring to Kierkegaard here. Kierkegaard argued that when confronted with the absurd a man must take a leap of faith in God. Despair in the face of the absurd was to him, among other things, a state of sin, as it is a state of alienation from God. Camus's dramatic statement is a reply to Kierkegaard in his own words. It is Camus's assertion that the absurd does not necessitate a leap of faith in the divine.

This will become clear as we consider the context of the quote from The Myth of Sisyphus:

"I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone. I am told again that here the intelligence must sacrifice its pride and the reason bow down. But if I recognize the limits of the reason, I do not therefore negate it, recognizing its relative powers. I merely want to remain in this middle path where the intelligence can remain clear. If that is its pride, I see no sufficient reason for giving it up. Nothing more profound, for example, than Kierkegaard's view according to which despair is not a fact but a state: the very state of sin. For sin is what alienates from God. The absurd, which is the metaphysical state of the conscious man, does not lead to God. Perhaps this notion will become clearer if I risk this shocking statement: the absurd is sin without God."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it". Marx

"The point is not to change the world but to be changed by it." [I vaguely remember reading it somewhere, but have been unable to find the source.]

In our efforts to create a better world, it is all too easy to forget the need of also changing ourselves for the better.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Prompts for #TS271: Rose, Episteme, Looking-glass.

'Episteme is the unseen in the looking-glass of history...' The lecturer continued on, even after the last student had risen and left #TS271

Prompts for #TS272: Piranhas, Senator Rehman Malik, Pie in the sky.

The newswoman expected a pie-in-the-sky rhetoric, but instead he lamented the state of his gaudy wardrobe, fishing for compliments. #TS272

Prompts for #TS273: Reverie, Alethia, Joker

His diary disclosed her docile-in-bed hubby as a sadomasochist in reverie. In cruel humor she buried him handcuffed, and with a whip. #TS273

Prompts for #TS274: Life isn't all ha ha hee hee, A Bollywood song, Delusion

'Zindagi na milay gee dobara!' He shrieked & the asylum inmates broke out in a Bollywood dance adaptation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra #TS274

Prompts for #TS275: Harmonic, Digression, Onomatopoeia

"Baby, I can't be sidetracked. This harmonic logarithm is important." He whizzed back to his math. "I want a divorce." She hissed. #TS275

Prompts for #TS277: Lure, Allure, Conjecture

Her mysterious allure drove his mind to much fancy. It was only after marriage that he discovered her to be a sphinx without a secret #TS277

Prompts for #TS278: Sly, Sleigh, Dynasty.

Slyly she escaped & sped away on the sledge. The infant king lay bundled up, oblivious to the burden of being the dynasty's sole heir #TS278

Excerpted from Justin E. H. Smith's Why I'm Studying Sanskrit on Befrois:

"The core thought, which I believe I was able to convey, was that India provides the best, and perhaps the only, full-fledged instance of an independent philosophical tradition that covers all of the fundamental questions addressed in the European philosophical tradition. Arabic-language philosophy cannot provide a comparison case, since in fact it is a continuation and development of the same tradition with which Europeans identify; and Chinese philosophy cannot provide as useful a comparison case, since for the most part it is concerned with ethics, statecraft, political philosophy, and rather less with the metaphysics and epistemology that have, arguably, underpinned the Western philosophical tradition (I am waiting for this point to be refuted). For this reason, any serious attempt at understanding the nature of philosophical inquiry through cross-cultural comparison will be one that considers the similarities and differences between the Indian and Western approaches to philosophical questions.

[...]

Sanskrit is important, and the corpus of scientific, philosophical, sacral, and poetic texts produced in this language is surely one of the richest, probably the richest, contributions to global textual culture ever. Millions of these texts remain unstudied. Western philosophy, to the extent that it refuses to take an interest in these texts, will remain, as I’ve said before (paraphrasing Nietzsche), nothing more than a catalogue of its own prejudices. As far as I’m concerned the case for studying Sanskrit makes itself, and there is no need at all to invoke higher spiritual incentives in order to justify one’s interest."

Saturday, September 8, 2012



(To view in original size, right click and select 'open link in new tab')

My op-ed article published in The News on 7 September 2012. (Readers will recognize that this based on a previous blogpost.)

The Riddle of Power


There is a famous riddle about the dynamics of power in the TV series Game of Thrones based on George R R Martin’s fantasy novels. Let me briefly quote it for the benefit of those who are unaware:

“Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles? Three great men sit in a room; a king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?” “Depends on the sellsword.” “Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold, nor the favour of the gods.” “He has a sword, the power of life and death.” “But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? ... Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

The conclusion is startling, despite being so very obvious. Power resides where men believe it resides. This applies not just to political power, but to power dynamics of other sorts as well. The one which is in my mind at the moment is that of religion: The power of who gets to decide what God ordains.

Imagine a Muslim man in anguish; he has uttered the three baneful words ‘talaq, talaq, talaq’ (I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you) in a burst of anger. He is now full of regret and seeks council. Before him are three scholars. The first one tells him ‘Your marriage is null and void. Leave your wife instantly.’ The second one tells him ‘Your marriage is intact. You said the words three times together but they will still count as one.’ The third one tells him ‘Your words are inconsequential. Your marriage was a written pact. It can only be broken in writing.’

Which of these three speaks the law of God? Who decides whether his marriage is valid or not? No doubt, all three of these scholars will present arguments for their statements, and these arguments will rely further on differing religious sources, whose authoritative power is a matter of faith. Just like in the riddle, it all eventually depends on the man. The man will decide on whom to confer religious authority... and yet he is just a man, without knowledge of law or revelation.

This becomes acutely relevant when we ponder over the question of reform in religion. Liberal versions of theology are not terribly difficult to come up with in theory. If we consider Islam, there are numerous scholars who have worked out a number of different approaches. We have the example of Sudanese scholar Mahmud Muhammad Taha who was keenly aware of Islam’s clash with modernity and suggested that Medinan verses dealing with the legal and political issues were intended to be an application of Islam core essence (revealed in Meccan verses) to the society as it existed in Prophet’s time and place. It is only the essence that is to be followed and the socio-political applicability has to be reconstructed according to the needs of time.

One need not even go so far, as our own Allama Iqbal believed that hadiths of legal nature are context dependent, and may not be applicable given the altered conditions of modern life. Yet, all that work remains academic with little acceptance and following at large. Religious authority resides where men believe it resides. No attempt at reformation will succeed in practice until men believe it to be true. In this fact lies the practical success or failure of religious reform.


The writer is a doctor. Email: awaisaftab@gmail.com. Tweets @awaisaftab

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Recent attempts by Hawking and Krauss to show how a universe can arise out of 'nothing' suffer from the same fundamental objection that I raised against religious use of creation ex nihilo. At the very minimum, according to their arguments, a universe can arise spontaneously out of nothing according to the laws of physics. But what about the laws of physics? Do they not have to exist, at least in ontological sense if not physical, for them to bring about a universe out of nothing? And how is their existence compatible with nothingness, which is the absolute absence of all existence?

Partly, Hawking and Krauss are motivated to show that science makes God unnecessary, and while this may strengthen the conviction of atheists, it does little to shake the views of theists, who can easily declare the mysterious laws of physics to be the manifestation of God's will or God's nature or something of the sort. 

Gerald Schroeder explained the resemblance between the two very well:

"Our concept of time begins with the creation of the universe. Therefore if the laws of nature created the universe, these laws must have existed prior to time; that is the laws of nature would be outside of time. What we have then is totally non-physical laws, outside of time, creating a universe. Now that description might sound somewhat familiar. Very much like the biblical concept of God: not physical, outside of time, able to create a universe."

In our attempt to pull a universe out of nothing, we keep bumping into this mysterious ontological entity, be it God or the laws of physics.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Prompts for #TS264: visceral, degradation, a conviction that roses are not really red.

In the ravaged waste of a world, botanists argued over whether roses were ever really red or was it just a visceral poetic myth. #TS264

Prompts for #TS265 Lamella, Chupacabra, Inamorata

Guilt & blood wrapped the sobbing girl like a membrane. The officer saw the dead body & sighed. 'Love makes monsters out of us all.' #TS265

Prompts for #TS266: truncate, benison, pugilist.

'Better to be violent, if there is violence in ur heart.' Pandit's blessing lulled the crisis that was to truncate his boxing career #TS266

Prompts for #TS267: phantasmagoria, Judas, travel.

the inn owner told tales of his travels, featuring the most phantasmagorical amorous intrigues, and the betrayal which broke his back #TS267
[the phrase 'the most phantasmagorical amorous intrigues' is from Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow.]

Prompts for #TS268: adrift, connection, end.

She went to the sea like Thoreau went to the woods, and when she came to die, she found herself adrift  & alone, without having lived #TS268

Prompts for #TS269: peer, glitter, Hakuna Matata.

'Pursuit of Happiness' The maester peered at the parchment with glitterless eyes & threw it in the fire. "I am too old for this shit" #TS269

Prompts for #TS270: percussion, sky, embrace.

Divine love was too much to bear. The sky cracked and fell apart as God embraced the world; the percussion left everyone deaf & dead #TS270

Sunday, September 2, 2012

If
God created the universe, and 'before' that the only existence was that of God.
and
From nothing comes nothing, and something always comes from something.
then
God must have created the universe out of his own being. (creation ex deo)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

It appears to me that creation ex nihilo employs 'nothing' in a certain narrow sense, as in being the non-existence of all things whose existence is material or physical. True nothingness, however, would be utter and absolute non-existence, not restricted to material or physical existence. The case in point being the existence of God. If God exists, then the existence of God is incompatible with absolute nothingness, because that would demand even the non-existence of God. If God exists, and if we are to be stringent in our use of nothing, then creation ex nihilo is untenable. It would simply translate as saying that God created universe out of a state of affairs in which there was no material/physical existence.

 

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