Saturday, February 05, 2011

An atheist guy goes to Malta

If you haven't yet seen this video on youtube, please see it. It is one of the funniest jokes I have seen. I see the narrative in this video as a metaphor to how conflicts happen between human beings - often due to misunderstanding.

Human languages are one of the most wonderful things in the universe. The expressive power in them is hardly matched by anything else. However, they still help us only in a limited way to communicate our deepest sensations and emotions. The language that runs in my head is hardly the same as that which runs in yours. To make things worse, these languages evolve rapidly over time. Is it possible to peek into the soul of a 12th century man, and experience the world as he experienced it ? I doubt if it is possible.

Languages have several layers to construct meaning - at the very outset is the vocabulary that maps sounds (words) to activities and ideas. Then there is the layer of syntax that encodes the relationship between these words. Then exists the layer of semantics that gives a specific meaning (amongst many) for a sentence from the words and the relationships between them. Beyond them, lies the layer of pragmatics which understands a given sentence in its broader context, how it is uttered etc. There exists possibilities for confusion in all these layers. And all these layers put together may still not express the very emotions a person felt before speaking.

Let me illustrate this. Imagine that I see colors very differently from how you see them. For example, every time you see "blue" I see "red", and vice-versa. Both of us would agree on how we give labels to these colors, i.e, we call the same set of objects as red. But in whichever language we might use, we will never be able to communicate the discrepancy that exists in our world-views. I first thought about this problem in school, when I heard about color-blindedness. A color-blinded person will see red and green objects similarly, and will get to know about his problem only when somebody else tells him about it. However, if I am suffering from the "color-swap" problem I mentioned above, I will never figure out that there is anything wrong with me. Being a kid that I was, this thought gave me a very cold chill in my spine. Much later in my life, I discovered that this issue is well-studied in philosophy and is called the problem of "qualia". Philosophers discuss (or dismiss) them in a very detached and nonchalant way that I find bemusing.

Considering these many layers in a human language and the endless possibilities in which we can confuse each other up, it is may be no surprise that we humans fight angrily at every other thing. What prodded me to write this post today however, is the growing debate about atheism in our society. Often this debate degenerates into funny conflicts, of the sort where the Italian guy goes to Malta.

Atheist guy : Sir, I think it is a bad thing to f*ck on the table.
Theist guy : But I really want a fork on the table, Sir.

Neither of the parties would agree on what words like consciousness, free-will, freedom or God means. And neither of them would know what they meant thousands of years ago when these words have first entered into our lexicon. I would consider this debate as just nonsensical fun, but for the presence of real evil idiots in our amidst.

Evil Idiot Theist guy : But my religious book has ordered me to indeed f*ck on the table, Sir.

I think as long as there are these evil idiot theists amongst us, I think atheism is the way to go !

** For the nerds amongst you, the color-swap (qualia) problem is actually a problem with a rotation in the color space. This rotation ambiguity (in the perception of H,S or V channels) cannot be recovered by communicating in human languages alone.

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