Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

Archive for August 2011

Eid saeed

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The Islamic month of Ramadan ended Monday, and yesterday was the beginning of the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, celebrating the end of the fasts of Ramadan. Thinking about Eid ul-Fitr this morning, I was reminded of one of my first encounters with Islam.

I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC, and as a teenager I bicycled a lot in and around the city. One day, a friend showed me the Islamic Center of Washington, and I was impressed by the beauty of the mosque and grounds, and by the spiritual atmosphere of the space. Muted light came through latticework, there were lovely columns, and tilework with a beautiful blue-on-white arabesque. It fronted right on Massachusetts Avenue but was quiet and contemplative within.

Some weeks later, I was bicycling near the Islamic Center with another friend and I suggested we stop in. I showed him into the mosque, where we sat on a bench near the back. But even though we were trying to be quiet and respectful, a woman who was in there praying kept shooting us dirty looks. This weirded me out, because the last time I was there the people had struck me as friendly and welcoming.

While we sat there, she had a brief conversation with a man who then came over to speak to us. He welcomed us, and explained that we were wearing short pants and in Islam men did not bare their legs. The moment he said this, I remembered having heard about that and was ashamed for being so stupid. When my other friend first showed me the place, we must have been wearing long pants and it just hadn’t occurred to me this time that shorts would be a problem.

I apologized and said that we would leave right away, but he stopped me and in a tone of kindness said, “No, next time.” Even though we were clearly in the wrong, he didn’t want us to feel we had to leave—he just wanted us to remember how we should dress the next time we came.

His patience and compassion on top of the embarrassment I already felt moved me so much that I almost started to cry. He saw that I was fighting back tears, and I think that made him feel even worse about our being made uncomfortable as a result of our unintentional mistake. I probably attempted some explanation or reassurance, but what I really wanted to do was leave and stop offending people, which we did.

That was some thirty years ago, but thinking about his kindness still brings me almost to tears. It was one of the key experiences of my young life, and it has stuck with me as a model of how I should treat other people in similar circumstances.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

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Written by Joel Benington

August 31, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Posted in humanity, religion

Using counterfactual thinking

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What is counterfactual thinking? It’s thinking about things that aren’t real. I introduced the idea in my last post, and proposed an interesting counterfactual scenario in which people all of a sudden start living about twice as long.

Thinking about counterfactuals may seem silly or strange, but in fact we do it all the time. Any time you imagine having a conversation with someone so you can prepare for how they might react to something you’d like to say, you’re engaging in counterfactual thinking. The same goes for any future thinking, whether it’s disaster preparation or wedding planning. To do that well involves imagining possible futures to anticipate the consequences of possible events and actions. When we do that, we’re thinking about things that are not currently, actually real. The military does this in deadly earnest all the time, as does the Center for Disease Control in developing strategies for dealing with possible epidemics.

We also apply counterfactual thinking to the past, as part of reasoning about causes and effects. Whenever you’ve regretfully thought, “ If only I hadn’t…,” you’ve thought counterfactually. Lawyers do it all the time when questioning witnesses, and to persuade a jury that one person’s actions were or were not to blame for something that happened. Historians do it too, spinning scenarios like How would World War II have played out if the US hadn’t entered the war? Some historians are disinclined to take this approach seriously, but others have argued that historians actually deal in counterfactuals all the time, often without even noticing that they’re doing it, and that counterfactual thinking is unavoidable if historians want to draw conclusions about cause and effect.

Of all the courses I’ve taught at St. Bonaventure University, my personal favorite is a seminar in our Honors Program that’s called Counterfactual Thinking. I developed the course a few years ago because I’m convinced that counterfactual thinking is a powerful vehicle for seminar discussions.

The great thing about counterfactual thinking in a seminar course is that it forces students to think creatively and independently. So much of college learning involves mastering facts and concepts that other people have already worked out, and that are widely considered to be true. When teaching that sort of material, we’d like students not only to learn an idea but also to see why it makes sense, but most of the time students just learn that an idea is true and are happy to take that fact for granted.

How do we figure out why an idea makes sense? For practical problems, it often involves imagining how the system (physical, logical, etc.) would work differently if a different idea were put in its place, and that is thinking counterfactually. Why do scientists perform controlled experiments? Why do accountants use double-entry bookkeeping? Why do we have trial by jury? We can justify those practices by showing that the systems they’re used in wouldn’t work as well in their absence.

But while counterfactual thinking can be used to make sense of real-world practices like these, that’s still well-worn ground. Students wouldn’t have to work terribly hard to find pre-existing justifications for such practices, which means they’re letting “experts” do the counterfactual thinking for them. The best way to force (!) students to think for themselves is to jump out of the real world altogether, and preferably in ways that haven’t already been done to death. There’s no point thinking counterfactually about time travel because whole books have been written about different ways it could be done, paradoxes that would result, ways around those paradoxes, etc. Only new and different counterfactual scenarios will get students thinking without a net, as it were.

In my course, I use a blend of “realistic” counterfactuals that sensible people will have already thought about (what is needed to develop driverless cars and how would that change our world?), and more bizarre, otherworldly counterfactuals (how would human life and society be different if there were three different human genders rather than the existing male and female, and what might the third gender be like?). The more realistic scenarios let students see other intelligent people thinking counterfactually, which gives them a jumping off point for their own further explorations, and gives the seminar ideas either to agree or disagree with. The more bizarre scenarios give students the ultimate hallucinogenic counterfactual experience, forcing them to start the thought process pretty much from scratch. They also give students an opportunity to question things that are such fundamental parts of the real world that we almost always take them for granted. The discussions that develop out of these scenarios can be exhilarating as well as sometimes hysterically funny.

Really and truly—you should try this yourself and with your friends. It’s best when it’s not an anything-goes discussion but when each counterfactual possibility is critically analyzed, questioned, second-guessed. Some of the best ideas come not from the initial inspiration, but from the alternatives or modifications that come out of this critical process.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

August 12, 2011 at 9:59 am

In praise of counterfactual thinking

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We should all spend more time thinking about things that aren’t real. Take a vacation from the usual human fixation on the truth, and start wondering about the consequences of some possible reality that you know isn’t true. Stop thinking about facts for a bit, and think about counterfactuals.

Why should you do this? Well, it’s fun and it costs practically nothing. But it’s also a great way to train your mind. It takes creativity to think counterfactually, and it takes careful analytical reasoning to evaluate the counterfactual scenarios that your creative mind comes up with.

Here’s one: how would our world be different if next year scientists announce that they’ve figured out how to slow down the aging process by a factor of two? In other words, what if human beings were suddenly able to live about twice as long as they do, so at 100 we have about the same physical and mental vigor that we currently do at age 50?

The first step is to define the details of the scenario.

How is the slowing of aging accomplished? Let’s say it’s done with a pill that people have to take regularly. Once a day may seem like a bit of a pain, but I bet most people would do that if it would extend their life. Heck, a lot of people put themselves through an aerobic workout every other day, and I don’t think that prolongs physical vigor quite by a factor of two.

How much will the pills cost? There are some interesting variations on the scenario here, depending on whether the life extension is available to more or less everyone, or whether it’s a privilege only of the wealthy. But even if it starts being expensive, I bet that most of the high cost is recouping of R&D costs and taking advantage of how much people would be willing to pay for something so desirable. Patent protection would run out in less than 20 years, and if the manufacturing cost isn’t super-high, generic versions would then be reasonably cheap. And in the meantime, you just know that other pharmaceutical companies will rush to develop copy-cat drugs based on the same physical principle. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the pills would cost little enough to make them widely available, either right away or in the near future.

Which parts of the normal human life cycle will be extended? I’m assuming most people won’t want to extend childhood and adolescence, so let’s say people start taking the drug as young adults and cut the rate of aging in half starting around age 20. That would make 60 like today’s 40, 80 like today’s 50, 100 like today’s 60, and so on. Premature deaths would still occur, but the risks associated with heart disease and cancer would be pushed back to later ages with the slowing of the aging process. Breast cancer rates typical of 70-year-old women today, would in this imagined future be typical of 120-year-old women. The only exceptions would be accidents and violence, unless of course people changed their behavior in this imagined future.

So think about it—what would be the consequences of this one change to our world? I bet you can come up with some interesting ones in just a few minutes. But if you keep thinking about it, you’re likely to experience two very interesting processes.

First, more and more consequences should keep coming to you, affecting more and more different aspects of our world, including some that you probably wouldn’t have initially thought would be affected by this one change.

Second, you should find yourself second-guessing some of the ideas you came up with at first. Either you’ll decide that your first ideas were unrealistic once you’ve had more time to think about it. Or you’ll decide that while a particular change may start to happen, people will respond to that change in a way that neutralizes it or takes our world in another direction altogether.

The first process is your creativity at work, spinning out more and more imagined consequences of this one counterfactual scenario. The second process is your analytical mind at work, subjecting your creative ideas to a kind of counterfactual reality testing, accepting some, rejecting some outright, and accepting some only with modifications.

If you’re not too busy, give this scenario a shot and see how good you are at developing this sort of scenario. Get some of your friends involved. Think it through together, or work on it separately and then trade notes and argue about the points you disagree on. Please feel free to include any ideas you have in comments on this post.

Counterfactual thinking can be a blast, if you go in for that sort of thing.

© Joel Benington, 2011

Written by Joel Benington

August 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm