Friday, December 21, 2007

Iran Again?

Because of the awful job the mainstream American Media does in portraying events that unfold in the world, many noteworthy news items are quickly overshadowed by useless information containing superficial material such as celebrity gossip. Even when the Media does feel responsible in covering important stories, they are so biased in the subjective analysis that those critical items are easily marginalized. We rarely have the pleasure of receiving objective information because as soon as the information filters down to the mainstream media, it is picked apart, over-analyzed and sucked of any importance by TV analysts, both on the political left and right. Those of us who've grown distasteful of such subjective bias have either become completely apolitical and apathetic, choosing to dissociate ourselves from politics all together, or forced to actively search for unfiltered and objective news on the internet. Sometimes, both of these forces come into play in determining how we interact with the outside world. As the world has become closely linked, and globalization a fact of life, news that happens on the opposite side of the world can have a serious impact on our way of life. When many politically unstable countries possess nuclear weapons (Looking at you Pakistan and Israel), any minor error in judgment can lead to a nuclear outcome. Choosing to close our eyes, ears, and mouth, remaining ignorant to global developments can have disastrous consequences. We can't grow accustomed to being spoon fed information that has been completely removed of impact and importance.

Having already written about Iran in at least 3 or 4 other blogs, recent key developments must be addressed. Thanks to the media coverage we have received, to those who obtain their news from the mainstream media, Iran appears to be this evil entity hell bent on destroying our way of life. We choose to forget that our actions towards Iran have never been completely benevolent. In fact, Iran's current non-secular Islamic Extremism is a product of the CIA's plot to overthrow their democratically elected leader, and installing in his place a corrupt dictatorship run by the Shah. The reason for this was an attempt at exploiting Iran's resources, especially the oil, and as the people grew weary of an inept government, they rose up and thus, the Islamic Revolution in Iran was born. As mentioned before, the US government has a track record of interfering and vilifying those countries that have the self respect to control their own resources. Venezuela for example is a recent player in global politics, mainly because as our dependence on oil has grown (thanks to an auto industry that for years has lobbied for continued production of gas guzzling fuel exploiting mini tanks called SUVs), we have become inadvertent financial supporters of their economies. For those sovereign nations that have allowed exploitation like Saudi Arabia, we have turned a blind eye to their globally dangerous behavior, while attacking those regimes that are a threat to our oil industry. Enter Venezuela, Iran and Russia. We demonize their political mistakes and constantly criticize and berate their leaders, when in effect, most people in those democratically elected countries support them. Having elected Bush, American's can't exactly feel any superiority to the general population of those countries in the negative spotlight.

Continuing with recent Iranian developments, the National Intelligence Estimate has just established that Iran stopped the development program for Nuclear Weapons in 2003. Naturally, news like this, though beneficial to global prosperity and peace, has become problematic for the Military-Industrial complex. As long as Iran was a credible nuclear threat, then forces could be amassed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Iran's northern neighbor, Azerbaijan, in a bid to contain Iran's political and economic influence. The pursuit of nuclear weapons development was just peripheral to the Administrations policy of security sanctions in an ever desperate bid to exploit Iran's internal divisions and thus control their resources, particularly oil and natural gas. When news of the Intelligence Estimate was released (1), the Mainstream media had to put some kind of negative spin (Washington Post Article). In addition to the saber rattling practiced by the US State Department, Israel, seeing itself as a self-imposed "party of interest" in containing and vilifying Iran, increased the tired rhetoric of Iran malicious intentions (2). As is often the case, Israel seems to consistently seek conflict and instability in the Middle East in order to receive protection both financial and militarily from the United States. The glaring hypocrisy in this instance is that Israel does possess nuclear weapons, hasn't ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Iran has ratified), and continually interferes with neighbors through cross-border raids into Lebanon and Syria (3). Claiming to have neutralized a "nuclear plant in Syria", it has now become clear that this was most likely a hostile act of pre-emptive bombing to send a message to Iran that the biggest threat in the Middle East is Israel (4). These kinds of actions are not exactly conducive towards peace in the region. As far as Israel's influence in the United States, beyond just a powerful lobby, it is American troops and American tax-payer dollars that will continue to fund Israel's amoral and misguided behavior. Israel's poweful lobby also stands in opposition of the United State's opening diplomatic channels with Iran on an official level. In direct contrast however, much of the current Middle Eastern mess would be better solved through an increased Diplomatic presence, and an attempt at understanding Iran's point of view. It should be noted however that understanding a point of view is not the same as accepting that behavior or condoning it.

It's understandable that Iran doesn't exactly provide a message of hope and stability for the future because ultimately they have a theocracy backed by Islamic Fundamentalists. Besides diplomacy, which is but one avenue of pursuit in achieving a stable region, how can we extend beneficial strategies to help usher in a more prosperous future? Of primary consideration is to endeavor in spreading the message of secularism, which can ultimately be propagated by science and education. Before embarking on such a grand scheme however (not just limited to Iran and the Middle East but other troubling regions of the world), we must strive to provide a solid core of science and mathematics education within the United States. Our own flirtation with theocracy is a direct result of the power that religion plays in the political process. Religion should have no power whatsoever in the secular political sphere. The only way to promote secularism and critical thinking is to increase science education at all levels and attempt at standardizing curriculi across American schoolboards. As we reform our educational system, we should also strive to promote the same in all countries of the world, especially those mired in political trouble. As we distribute foreign aid, we should hold accountable the educational bodies in those countries and help to promote their educational spending. When people start to think more critically, both domestically and abroad, their personal growth and prosperity is unlimited. They come to realize that the world is a far more complex place. Both the subtle and more obvious nuances that separate cultures can ultimately be resolved without a loss of the richness that the cultural fabric provides us. By understanding other cultures, and striving to support the beneficial elements within them, very little hostility need be exercised. Instead, some understanding, a change in perspective, and perhaps empathy can go a long way in resolving future conflicts and also raising the general awareness of the population.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Life-Affirming Perspective as an Atheist

Having come to terms with atheism, the most difficult aspect is making sense of life from the completely materialistic perspective. By Materialism, I am not speaking of acquisition of wealth or status, but of living in a non-dualistic, physical universe, which is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. In general, for all the mysterious phenomenon of the universe we don't easily understand, I'm not quick to pile them into a corner and label them as supernatural. Being aware that very little of the vast network we call the universe is understood, grasping a greater knowledge requires a foundation in empirical, evidence based science. So far, no religion in the world has ever explained our universe better then science. Science however is not to be confused in the same light as religion and spirituality. Unlike science, religion, with no need for evidence requires complete and total faith. Faith however, as noble as some believe it to be, cannot and is not an objective stance. Those whose faithful convictions are unassailable have often proved to be wrong. Science on the other hand thrives on rigorous proofs and any theory that turns out wrong is progress because it can be ruled out. Just believing something then does not make a rational explanation of the universe. Early on in Western Civilization, especially during the development of Greek Philosophy, much was made of theorizing. Generations of pederasts would sit in circles speaking of complex topics in a form we now call a dialectic. They would debate about vast topics that covered the length and breadth of human knowledge. Yet, without experimentation and verifiable proof, all their theorizing had little evidence based proof. Many concepts then, such as the atom, surely came to be proven correct, but only through the rigorous and empirical tools of science and mathematics. Furthermore, their ideas, though influential, where not grounded in the true material universe. In the case of atoms, they may have theorized that if you continue to partition matter into smaller pieces, eventually you will reach an end point. Similarly, atoms as we know today, are extremely exotic particles, and can in fact be further partitioned into subatomic particles like quarks and gluons. Yet, we do know that atoms form the basis of all matter and that in one aspect, the early philosophers were correct. Eventually, the belief in atoms that was propagated by Democritus was overtaken by the more elegant and appealing Aristotlian theory of the four elements. They may not have understood the nuclear processes that form the atoms as we know today and to them four elements made more sense than the 120 or so that we have in the periodic table. The false Aristotlian model was carried with us for nearly 1500 years, until the advent of the scientific method and the rigorous experimentation that went along with it.

With a solid belief in materialism then, the warm comfort that religion and spirituality provide is suddenly uncovered. To some, the cold, unforgiving universe is just too difficult to bear, and even though they have reasoned for the possibility of a material universe, they would rather the universe have a pre-purpose (an intelligence at work often referred to as "the primary mover"). They can compartmentalized their illogical beliefs to allow them to function even within the realms of science, but the psychological comfort of religion and spirituality are difficult to break. The inevitable truth however is that the universe truly is a hostile place to live in. There's only one way to be born (when sperm meets egg, at least for now), but incomprehensibly vast ways to die. As the famous contemporary astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has described; on a galactic scale, one can be torched by supernovas, gamma ray blasts, active galactic nuclei, black holes, etc. Even just on a global scale, one can succumb to hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, tornadoes, volcanoes, ice ages, tsunamis and other such natural disasters. Within just our daily neighborhood and social interactions, one can suffer in the hands of carjackers, murderers, school shooters, swat officers mistaking addresses, drunk drivers, sinkholes, etc. With all of these seemingly malevolent forces at play, it is a wonder we continue to survive and thrive. Many liken this survival to a god-like entity, but they ignore the violent universe in which we've come to exist. This is not a perfect place that's created just for us to enjoy, but nevertheless, we must make the most of it. Life then is so fragile, even so much as a cosmic whisper can sterilize it without malice or criminal intent. Knowing all this, and rejecting the supernatural does lead to a dilemma of sorts. How are we to continue on with our lives knowing and accepting that we live in such an ambivalent, unforgiving and apathetic place?

In order to prosper, we must first recognize that even though our existence is truly an accident of chance, we are actually alive and have the ability to scrutinize our environment. We can reason, and through our linguistic abilities perpetuate our knowledge to countless others. As all animals, we are geared towards survival, even if it means crawling and clawing our way out of a deep dark hole in the ground. This inherent ability to survive (after all, without this inborn drive, life and the scarce competition of resources would not be possible) has not only provided us with instincts that can help protect us, but with the tools to apply our reasoning, intellect, and social bearing on the perpetuation of our existence. Almost every single species that has ever evolved on Earth has gone extinct (99%), yet, of all of those creatures, we are alone in the ability to look beyond just our local environment. We, above all other Earthly creatures have within us the potential to develop technologies that could avert major global catastrophes like an asteroid impact. With our developed sense of perspetive, other more menacing developments have also evolved. We not only have the potential ability to protect the world from catastraphic accidents, but also have the potential for destroying it. With our arsenal of nuclear bombs, we are but hours away from completely voiding the planet of dominant life. Yet, if we apply ourselves to more benevolent purposes, we can enhance the protection of our planet. Looking at life through this perspective tends to irk those who view such notions as egotistical. They claim that by acknowledging our superiority above mythical beings, we are leading delusional lives of megalomania and self importance. They feel that such a stance will lead to moral and ethical errors in judgement. Yet, as mentioned in my previous blogs, our ethics and morals don't come from any holy books, or any mythical beings. They lie somewhere in our biological makeup, but as of today, a well encompassing theory has yet to materialize. There are many good theories, but few have been tested against empirical research. What is known is that there has to be some link to our evolutionary past, and observing the behavior of our closest living relatives, such as the Great Apes can prove useful. In truth, accepting materialism is a life-affirming process, not a selfish mode of thought as perpetuated by the religious. Recognizing that all human beings have the same inherent rights, freedoms, and privileges upon birth is more intuitive to those embracing a material universe. Praying for invisible entities to come to the rescue when in need is a lot more frustrating then accepting that what all humans share is a bond called humanity. As a member of a single species, it is upon us to protect each other, the environment, and ultimately all our resources for survival.

We must accept the liberating fact that we are in charge of our own destiny. How we treat other human beings, the environment, and our potential towards a prosperous future of discovery and progress is in itself a wonderful sense of purpose. There was no consciousness behind the creation of the universe and life, but now that we are here, we can use our consciousness and self awareness towards the future. We must look at the universe in mystical awe, and realize that our existence is so unbelievable, we must do everything in our power to apply our inherent potential. Of all the possible humans that could have formed in our species' history, each of us as an individual is a unique development provided by the universe. We shouldn't mourn for those who've passed because the simple fact of they have existence is far grander then their non-presence. Even our existence, as fleeting as it is in relation to the universe as a whole is vastly important to the social network we interact with. Rearrange just one atom in any of the previous stages of life that lead to our development (from the first multicellular organism to one's conception) and our existence would be utterly nullified.

In conclusion, to some degree, religion and spirituality provides people with a type of psychological comfort, but science, although intuitively more difficult to grasp has rewards beyond mere dogma and faith. Science allows us to view the universe beyond the physical tools of our evolutionary past. We have come so far, not just as creatures with 4.3 billion years of evolution behind us, but as a culturally dominant force with just 10,000 years of major growth. Evidence for our external phenotype (to borrow a concept from the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins) is all around us. The genes of the beaver (their genotype), for example, have evolved to provide it dense fur for warmth, an oily coat for better insulation, perpetually growing front teeth for gnawing wood, etc. These external characteristics, called the phenotype, can be furthered by the actions of the beaver on its environment. Beaver dams are a result of all of the special genes within a beaver allowing it to construct such a complex structure (external phenotype). Likewise, humans have also evolved certain genes that allow us to not only alter our environment for comfort, but expand on our genetic template. Our cultural evolution is unprecedented in the biological world, and our reasoning abilities provide us the tools to expand beyond our genetic constraints. I believe that it would be a shame to have evolved, both genetically and culturally to such an introspective point, and then throw it all away because of our need for comfort and warmth. We can derive comfort and warmth knowing that life is so fragile and fleeting that we must do all we can to appreciate it to the fullest. Of prime importance is understanding who we are, where we come from, and where as a species we're headed. Keeping such an optimistic view in light of a random and chaotic universe can by hard at times, but humans prosper and thrive under adversity. After all, adversity is the invisible hand that guides evolution and natural selection. Thus, adversity can also guide our cultural, ethical, and moral behavior.