Acclaimed writer and political scholar Christopher Hitchens may just be the only writer to have recently visited Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Hitchens - known for his keen wit, sharp political insight and often controversial opinions - examines the differences between the countries once linked as the "axis of evil," while revealing intriguing connections between the nations.
Christopher Hitchens is an author and journalist whose books, essays, and journalistic career span more than four decades. He has been a columnist and literary critic at The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, World Affairs, The Nation, Free Inquiry, and became a media fellow at the Hoover Institution in 2008.
Steven Boyd Saum
Steven came to the SCU team in April 2006 from The Commonwealth Club of California, where he edited The Commonwealth magazine and the collection Each a Mighty Voice. He has served in the Peace Corps and directed the Fulbright program in Ukraine, and his writing has appeared in Salon, the Christian Science Monitor, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere.
Journalist Christopher Hitchens comments on the consequences of the age demographic in Iran. Hitchens claims that nearly half of the Iranian population is under 25, which has resulted in a "baby-boomerang."
"The Mullahs have by accident ... brought about a generation that doesn't like them."
Journalist Christopher Hitchens elaborates on his view of Iranian nuclear policy. Hitchens says, "Which do you think is worse: The Mullahs get a bomb after the way they have behaved to their own people and to their neighboring countries? Or, that they be told that they cannot have a bomb?"
Systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective. It has been used throughout history by political organizations of both the left and the right, by nationalist and ethnic groups, and by revolutionaries. Although usually thought of as a means of destabilizing or overthrowing existing political institutions, terror also has been employed by governments against their own people to suppress dissent; examples include the reigns of certain Roman emperors, the French Revolution (seeReign of Terror), Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin, and Argentina during the dirty war of the 1970s. Terrorism's impact has been magnified by the deadliness and technological sophistication of modern-day weapons and the capability of the media to disseminate news of such attacks instantaneously throughout the world. The deadliest terrorist attack ever occurred in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 (seeSeptember 11 attacks), when members of al-Qaeda terrorist network hijacked four commercial airplanes and crashed two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City and one into the Pentagon building near Washington, D.C.; the fourth plane crashed near Pittsburgh, Pa. The crashes resulted in the collapse of much of the World Trade Center complex, the destruction of part of the southwest side of the Pentagon, and the deaths of some 3,000 people.
Regarding successful development of science in a truly totalitarian society where denunciation was an acceptable argument in the scientific debate I would recommend you to read about Trofim Lysenko who tried to correct biology according to ideology and what happened to his opponent Nikolai Vavilov. Read biography of Soviet "Wernher von Braun" Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov who was among thousands of scientists a victim of Great Purge 1937 - 1938, Stalin’s attempt to eliminate even the slightest possibility of the opposition to his godlike authority until he realized that "this is still a dangerous world" and that the killing of scientists producing weapons would be a suicide for his regime. Not to mention the social sciences which resembled just the reflection of ideology at that time.
The quote in German reads:
"Der zahlreichere Theil der Menschen wird durch den Kampf mit der Noth viel zu sehr ermüdet und abgespannt, als daß er sich zu einem neuen und härtern Kampf mit dem Irrthum aufraffen sollte."
He then follows with:
"Zufrieden, wenn er selbst der sauren Mühe des Denkens entgeht, läßt er Andere gern über seine Begriffe die Vormundschaft führen, und geschieht es, daß sich höhere Bedürfnisse in ihm regen, so ergreift er mit durstigem Glauben die Formeln, welche der Staat und das Priesterthum für diesen Fall in Bereitschaft halten. "
He therefor says that, unable to exert the energy to think for themselves, these people then eagerly believe everything that religion and the state will give them to believe in.
And then he says:
"Wenn diese unglücklichen Menschen unser Mitleiden verdienen, so trifft unsere gerechte Verachtung die andern, die ein besseres Loos von dem Joch der Bedürfnisse frei macht, aber eigene Wahl darunter beugt. "
These people (the ones too tired to think) deserve our sympathy, but those, he says, who do not suffer such hardships as to be unable to spend time on deep thoughts because they have been blessed with better economical circumstance, they only deserve our scorn.
And he immediately tells us why:
"Diese ziehen den Dämmerschein dunkler Begriffe, wo man lebhafter fühlt und die Phantasie sich nach eignem Belieben bequeme Gestalten bildet, den Strahlen der Wahrheit vor, die das angenehme Blendwerk ihrer Träume verjagen."
These people (the ones who could but decide not to think hard) prefer to make up pleasant fantasies that suit them rather than to follow the bright light of truth which would remove the cozy deception of their own dreams.
(These are my own translations and interpretation of the original, I am sure you can find a much better one... please feel free to do so.)
Now, doesn't that remind us of the "philosophical" foundations of the religious right in the US? Well, it does remind me, for sure.
Schiller, while, of course, mired in his own particular world which was extremely narrow minded and which he, unlike his contemporary Goethe, never managed to escape economically, has some fairly general insights here. His basic observations are true to the day. But, of course, one can argue, that he has also given us the correct recipe to change all of that: we need to remove the economic shackles from mankind which force people to devote all of their energy to mere survival and give them an education that allows them to think for themselves. And while doing so we are never allowed to let those who will trade painful truth for shallow complacency get away with it.
I couldn't agree more. I should probably add that they teach Schiller in German high schools for a reason: German history is full of examples of intellectual complacency that led to catastrophe. The German higher education system has one central theme: to never let the intellectual and political leadership of the country fall victim to destructive ideologies, again, by making sure that there is always a large fraction of the population who will detect and call any bull as soon as they see it. I think that strategy worked, at least until now. One has to be worried about long term changes, of course, especially as the country goes through tougher economic times because of its aging population coupled with integration problems of, on average, younger immigrants, who often have a different sociological background (e.g. Muslims from Turkey).
The US, on the other hand, has a different problem... while it is, in terms of population aging, less disadvantaged than most other industrialized countries, and therefor will not experience the same fundamental economical constraints, it has an increasingly growing number of people who fall into Schiller's first category because of lack of education and state guaranteed economic safety. That's also called the disappearance of the (upper) middle class, which, historically, used to be Schiller's audience and is generally believed in the political sciences to be the major stabilizing element in western societies.
That, of course, is entirely our own fault. While other nations keep building schools for their next generation of scientific and industrial leaders, we keep giving our rich tax breaks which they neither need nor deserve while slowly eroding what used to make this country number one: its human intellectual potential.
Somebody hook up a generator to Herr Schiller's corpse, please. He, as they like to say in German, must be spinning in his grave, right now.
"As of 2005 (most recent data), approximately 88 percent of the world's population were said to "believe in God" (Cambridge University)."
So you are trying to tell me that we are now finding truth by taking polls?
Wait, I got it, that's how the minority of mankind elects politicians and tests for the efficiency of product advertising!
That is NOT how we find truth. We find scientific truth by making measurements and fitting the simplest explanation to the data. We find philosophical truth by making logical arguments. We find theological truth by interpreting scriptures. We find legal truth by hearing witnesses and applying an objective law that is the same for everyone.
But in no case do we take the majority opinion to determine the truth.
Now, where you only seem to see a single (large) number, I see a multiplicity of highly fractured beliefs. The truly interesting thing about religion is that very, very few of theses people can actually agree about the kind of god(s) they believe in.
Actually, most of these people do not even have the theological education to tell you what, exactly, they believe in. All they know is that from the first days in their conscious lives they were told to do some peculiar actions to keep the god(s) of their social group happy. What they believe in is simply a function of where and when they were born and most of them never question what they were told. Not questioning what you are being told is, in most cases, indeed an unsound strategy. Every con man in the world looks for people who do not question what they are being told.
And if I may remind you... those who believe the strongest in some of the monotheistic religions are actually so unsound that they will torture and burn others on the stake and fly kidnapped planes into skyscrapers to make their point. Not sure about you, but this kind of behavior is not my definition of "sound".
"In the United States, 95 percent of the population "believe in God.""
But which God would that be, exactly? In my neighborhood there is a street with three different Christian churches right next to each other. One of them is inviting gays to join their celebration of God and the next one officially teaches that gays are abominations to God. So do all of these people really pray to the same Christian God? Hardly. And then there are the Mormons, which every Evangelical I asked in the US (and I did ask a lot of them, just to understand the issue) called "a sect". According to these "official Christians", the Mormons are not Christians. But if you ask the Mormons... oh well.
So, in essence, these 95% basically agree to disagree with each other about the very thing that is supposed to unite them.
"Belief in an afterlife and souls is a fundamental principle not only to most religions, but also most spiritual and paranormal beliefs today."
What "afterlife" means to different religions is very different. Some natural religions, for instance, believe that the dead live on as guiding spirits to protect the tribe. They have a function that is not about their own survival but about the survival of the tribe. Some tribes actually eat their dead to preserve the powers of the old in the next generation. I find that there is a lot of logic to that particular belief... especially when you are running low on protein in your environment. Some species of spider feed the mother to the little spiders... and probably for the very same practical reason.
Hindus and Buddhists are looking for ways to escape an endless cycle of rebirth... a higher level of existence or just sheer nothingness. They are certainly not looking for some eternal resting place where looking at the face of God promises the highest possible high (yes, much, much better than crystal meth!).
And if you are a Catholic, you have to go through purgatory, first, unless you pay enough money to the Holy Church, of course. Just have them sing ten thousand Pater Noster and Ave Maria for your soul and you can avoid the dark places between hell and heaven altogether, no matter what you have done. There were times when murderers could apply for heaven simply by donating enough property. Today few people donate enough, so the Church has restricted that practice. It doesn't pay so well, anymore.
But there is power in numbers, though, as the Tibetans can tell you. They have dedicated prayer mills which will do the prayer for you just by turning. I always wondered if an electronic version in form of a CMOS shift register would actually count? If it would, a single person could repeat "Om Mani Padme Hum" billions of times a second, just by cranking a generator powering an electronic prayer mill... that should definitely advance the state of the universe by the power of prayer. What do you think?
Jehova's witnesses are being promised that will be living in heaven like on Earth, as one big happy family. But only them. And, of course, you have to join them (and pay them) if you want to survive... otherwise, it's damnation for you. They used to announce the end of the world with precise date and time a couple of times, but seem to have given up on that since the universe doesn't want to play ball with their little "predictions". Oh... and no blood transfusions for you...God said so!
Wicca reincarnate, but most can't come back as anything else than humans, it seems, although some seem to be able to come back as pigs and turkeys... not sure how that helps the spiritual development of the soul in a country where being a pig is the same as being bacon and let's not talk about being a turkey... oh man, that just sucks altogether.
Can you see the one, big common thread here? No? I can. It's the unwillingness to admit the possibility that human life might, after all, be limited to one single period between birth and death, with nothing before and nothing beyond.
That, of course, is a tough concept to swallow, if you are afraid of it and most people, instead of facing their natural fear, will develop avoidance mechanisms. Religions almost universally provide those. Not all religions, of course... but many of the major ones do.
"If your point is that the world today is "in rather unsound territory" then I totally agree on that."
My point was that many people base all of their theological and philosophical thinking on anecdotal teachings and the repetition of rituals that they have been taught by their elders. To me that's simple a statement about the missing education and intellectual emancipation of most of mankind.
But overall the world happens to be in much sounder territory than it was just half a century ago. And it is in an infinitely better state than two, three or four centuries ago. But that has nothing to do with religion. It's basically a matter of economics and technological development. At the current time, for most people, political leaders included, peace is the better economical alternative over war. That lesson has been learned the hard way and as long as it is not forgotten, religion won't change that.
"I meant that the fundamental science, not the applied science or products of science, is the best possible way for people to get a true picture of the world today."
And I said that science is not enough... never has been, never will.
"Fundamental science" and "applied science" and the "products of science" (engineering, medicine etc.) always go together. You can't have one without the other. You can ask pretty much any experimental scientist what they would do if you removed every single product of engineering from their labs. And then ask the theoriticians how much theory they could do without any experimental data coming from the experimentalists... and then ask the engineers if they could do their job without the formulas of the theoreticians and the experimental data (material properties etc.) gathered by experimentalists.
If you want to understand the history of science, you need to understand the intimate relationship between theory, experiment and engineering.
Now, if you have science but no humanism, the end results are nerve gas and Hitler's V-2. If you have science and humanism, you have antibiotics and the Apollo program... what a difference a mindset makes (I would suggest a biography or Werner von Braun, among others).
"I am sure that the fundamental science in the whole can successfully develop only in a free society..."
Hmmm... basically all of modern science got started in highly repressive European societies... There was a lot of science in Germany before 1945... but not a free society, for sure. And there was a lot of great science in the USSR. May I suggest a biography of Andrey Sakharov? Very, very interesting man.
I am sure you won't like this example... but I can assure you, the North Korean scientists are developing nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons and carrier systems for them using the scientific method... they are, for sure, not deriving the equations for the neutron flux inside the detonating bomb by meditating about the wisdom of their "superior leader".
"because as you mentioned the important characteristic of scientific mentality is that it can live with not-knowing, doubt, uncertainty"
That's actually not the scientific mindset. The scientific mindset is to know where its current knowledge ends and how to expand the sphere of knowledge into the unknown. It's like a man in the dark with a lamp. As he goes forward, he discovers ever new ground below his feet.
"and find it amusing in contrast to the mindset of totalitarian society which requires people without doubts truly believing in an official story."
Actually... I don't know if you have ever been in a totalitarian society... especially a modern one. Those are quite keen on knowledge... because they know that knowledge is power. See the former USSR, Iran, North Korea, China etc.. Most totalitarian societies do not waste resources on trying to make people believe an official story... they merely require people to keep quiet about the side of affairs that are counter to the leadership's agenda. That's quite different from a religious state or regime like the Taliban. Iran is a weird thing culturally... they are both, a religious state and a modern totalitarian state... not exactly a good combination.
"But I am not so sure how to couple humanism which "sacredness of human life" originating in anthropocentric world view..."
Huh? Where do you get all this crap from? Do you have sources or are you just making it up as you go? Just because someone holds human life sacred does not mean they have to put humans at the center of the universe. Humanism does measure things by human scales, but that also means that it knows when something is bigger than man. A humanist has absolutely no desire to inflate man beyond his size. More importantly, he also has no desire to subjugate man to some unprovable higher power.
"expressed in Protagoras' most famous saying: "Man is the measure of all things” and science with its cosmocentrism and its e.g. “survival of the fittest”."
Hold your horses for a second...
Protagoras, the agnostic? Didn't he also say:
"Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life."
Science isn't "cosmocentrist". It merely puts things into the correct scales. Hey, wait... isn't that what humanism does? Isn't that what Protagoras said?
Anyway... the universe happens to be a mighty big place... that's not science's fault. Humans occupy a very, very small corner of it. That's not science's fault, either. So unless you are happily gathering the firing squad for the messenger...
"Survival of the fittest"? That's not even a scientific term. Never was. Never will be.
"Neither will anybody with a sound mind worry about an afterlife they can know nothing about. So that leaves those, who worry about these things, in rather unsound territory." As of 2005 (most recent data), approximately 88 percent of the world's population were said to "believe in God" (Cambridge University). In the United States, 95 percent of the population "believe in God." Belief in an afterlife and souls is a fundamental principle not only to most religions, but also most spiritual and paranormal beliefs today. If your point is that the world today is "in rather unsound territory" then I totally agree on that.
I meant that the fundamental science, not the applied science or products of science, is the best possible way for people to get a true picture of the world today. I am sure that the fundamental science in the whole can successfully develop only in a free society because as you mentioned the important characteristic of scientific mentality is that it can live with not-knowing, doubt, uncertainty and find it amusing in contrast to the mindset of totalitarian society which requires people without doubts truly believing in an official story. But I am not so sure how to couple humanism which "sacredness of human life" originating in anthropocentric world view expressed in Protagoras' most famous saying: "Man is the measure of all things” and science with its cosmocentrism and its e.g. “survival of the fittest”.
""Dimitry... you are wrong, again" by the way it was a logical fallacy unless it was proved that I was wrong before."
Since I did prove you wrong in probably half a dozen posts before, there is no logical fallacy. But if it makes you feel better to believe it...
"The more things you get to know the more things you discover you don't comprehend. That is a catch which will never end. "
What you fail to understand is that science is pragmatic. It is not unhappy with the things it can fundamentally not know, but instead, scientists are highly amused about the things they can discover by the good grace of the current state of the universe (I could give a talk on why we believe that we do, indeed, live in an extremely science friendly era of the universe, but other people have done that much better than I could, feel free to listen to their talks).
In addition, we know fairly well about all the things that we can not know by the very laws of nature. We can, for instance, not measure the charge distribution inside a superconducting box (on the upside... it means we can make superconducting boxes that completely shield against the charge distribution on the outside, without which many precision experiments would be all but impossible!). We can't measure the momentum and the location of an electron at the same time. We can not predict the long term dynamics of a chaotic system and large fractions of the universe might be shrouded beyond a cosmological event horizon that one can not pierce. But none of this keeps a physicist awake at night. Instead, we absolutely marvel at the ability to be able to tell you what we can not tell you! That's where the real meat is, Dimitry! I wish I could show it to you, it makes me that exited just thinking about these insights.
Now, I wish I could agree with you that science will never run out of mysteries because scientists would love that! But one of the things at the center of our bad dreams is that, indeed, one day we will run out of fundamental mysteries, that one black day, everything we will find will neatly fit into one of a finite number of categories and laws... that will be the darkest day of science!
So, what you seem to regard as a downside, the idea that the hunt will never end, is the brightest hope of every scientist. Sadly, most of us agree that we are probably living in the most exciting time that science will ever see and that, at least as far as fundamental problems are concerned, we will run out of good stuff within a century or two (I admit that I might be off by an order of magnitude here, but that does not make much of a difference given the age of the universe, it's all basically an instantaneous end to a game that you can play only once!). There will, of course, be always non-trivial stuff... it just won't be as fundamental as what we are discovering now.
"Beside this the science is not answering the most important questions for every person like what is purpose of you life and what will happen after your death."
Please forgive me. I did not realize that these are the most important problems of my life. Somehow I am still putting the happiness of my partner and the education of my kids way ahead of these grave questions that you pose. But then, everyone has to make their own priority list...
Now, as far as I am concerned, I have very good answers to both questions and I had them since I was probably ten or so (from which I deduce that they are really not that hard to answer). The purpose of life, it seems to me, is what you make of it, and, well, after death there is really nothing. Why would there be? Isn't it just fair to give up your space and your resources so someone else can enjoy the universe? You know... the world is finite and it would be both unfair and boring if the same people got to live in it all the time.
Now, maybe that is not really your question? Maybe your question is how to deal with the fact that we are all mortal? Well, that's harder. The hardest part for me is to acknowledge that one day I will have to depart and that I will leave a painful vacuum in the lives of my family. I will cause them a lot of pain, just like my parents will cause me a lot of pain when they will do what is in all of our futures. And like everyone else who has thought about this hard enough, I have decided that we will do our best NOW to make sure that when the time comes, we will have the fewest regrets possible. So that's why I am telling all my loved ones now how dear they are to me, so that they will have something nice to remember me by.
It really does not matter to me if there is a white light or not. I do not expect there to be one, and, if there is one, I do not expect it to be different from the event horizon of a black hole (which, to the infalling traveler, by the way, looks like the infinitely bright bottom of a tunnel... surprise!). It's a one way journey, all the matters relating to this world have to be taken care of in this world. And if there should be matters in the next, we will take care of them in the next, AFTER we have read the rule book over there. But then, again, nothingness does not have that many rules.
"Tell me who will trade being of sound mind his afterlife and his community from which he will be banished otherwise for uncertain theories which may be disproved 50 years later."
Nobody will. Neither will anybody with a sound mind worry about an afterlife they can know nothing about. So that leaves those, who worry about these things, in rather unsound territory. Are you counting yourself among the unsound?
Now, as far as being "banished" from a community for thinking these kinds of thoughts... if you happen to live among people who require you to think their way or else... what a shame. Get the hell out of there. You are better off with real friends.
Theories are never "disproved". Theories are either superseded or extended by more powerful theories covering larger application domains and explaining a larger number of phenomena. Please read up on the definition of the word "theory". I, for instance, will use Newtons theory of gravity for all things related to the solar system for problems requiring a relative error of 10E-9 or less, I will switch to a post-Newtonian approximation for things like GPS navigation and gravitational waves and gravitational lensing, I will use the general theory of relativity for the description of neutron stars, black holes and the universe as a whole and, if I need an idea about what's going on within a proton's radius above the event horizon of a black hole, I will try out any number of ideas for quantum gravity. So instead of giving up one theory for another, I am trying to gain full intellectual insight into a whole stack of them and learn how they are interrelated. Again, progress makes theories richer, it does not extinguish them. We are, for instance, still learning about key properties of classical mechanics and thermodynamics while we are exploring the properties of e.g. quantum mechanics and relativity.
There is an incredible richness to these structures and I would need another ten lives just to scratch the surface of what we already know.
"I pray for a fusion of science and religion with buddhism like religion because it is the more science compatible one."
That prayer has already gone unanswered. Buddhism does as little for science as any other religion and science does as little for Buddhism as it does for any other religion. Not that Buddhism really gives you much of an afterlife. In essence it says that the goal is to get relief from infinite suffering by extinction... which is pretty much what I get for free in my own version of disbelief in any afterlife. For me there is no "next round", when it's over, it's over. And I don't have to work particularly hard for that, I get it for free. What I have to work on, is to use the one round that I get to achieve a reasonable emotional balance and a reasonable amount of happiness. Both of these are quite achievable goals which do not require religious models of any kind. But then, who knows, Dimitry, maybe I am simply already an incarnation which is one step away from Nirvana, and I don't even know it? Not that I ever thought of myself as Bodhisattva, but hey, a dog by another name is still a dog, right?
"I have to admit that science is the best possible choice we have today."
It always takes me wonder how someone can propose something so fundamental about something they seem to know so little about. Doesn't that make you at least a little bit nervous, yourself?
Look... it's not science that makes life better for most of us. It's science coupled with humanism. Every Taliban uses products of science (AK-47s and shoulder fired missiles are impossible without a deep knowledge of chemistry, metallurgy (which is based on some very fundamental physics), Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics, etc..) to create hell on earth for the people they are trying to "save". What the Taliban are missing is not science, they can buy canned science from any arms dealer in the region. What they are missing is the humanistic idea that human life is sacred and that the collective can not be happy by making its members suffer.
Can we agree on that?
"Dimitry... you are wrong, again" by the way it was a logical fallacy unless it was proved that I was wrong before. Words of great Socrates "I know that I know nothing" at my point of view express the essence of the scientific world view. The more things you get to know the more things you discover you don't comprehend. That is a catch which will never end.
Beside this the science is not answering the most important questions for every person like what is purpose of you life and what will happen after your death. Tell me who will trade being of sound mind his afterlife and his community from which he will be banished otherwise for uncertain theories which may be disproved 50 years later. I pray for a fusion of science and religion with buddhism like religion because it is the more science compatible one. I have to admit that science is the best possible choice we have today.