Thursday, March 26

Another pespective on terrorism


Recently PM tony Abbott released a national security statement which stated amongst other things The Government will develop amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act so that we can revoke or suspend Australian citizenship in the case of dual nationals. It has long been the case that people who fight against Australia forfeit their citizenship. Australians who take up arms with terrorist groups, especially while Australian military personnel are engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, have sided against their country and should be treated accordingly. For Australian nationals, we are examining suspending some of the privileges of citizenship for individuals involved in terrorism.
But  Dr Clark Jones who worked for the Australian Government for 17 years in national security in the fields of military, police and intelligence before changing to academia, where he has undergone research interests in counter-terrorism, radicalization / de-radicalization, organized crime, prison gangs and prison reform believes such additional powers are unlikely to make Australia more secure.  
I think the idea of revoking citizenship, which would prevent those who had engaged overseas on returning on the basis they conceivably might inflict a terrorism plot from their acquired knowledge while serving overseas is overblown. Whilst acknowledging an element of risk the high level security risk outlined seems implausible and may even be counterproductive. 

Firstly, radicalised individuals intent on terrorism, would surely not risk their life in a combat zone for training as a prerequisite. Secondly, those wishing to return may be fed up or even disillusioned to the extent of wanting to warn others against enlistment. As a further matter recently there has been unconfirmed reports of executions to those who seek to leave, so that those escaping are hardly likely to revert back as advocates or defenders of an organisation from which they fled from.   
Dr Clarke Jones contends:  Telling people they are no longer Australian also confirms their feeling of disenfranchisement and rejection of so-called Australian values. Such actions do not play well with individuals already disillusioned with Australian society.
This discussion paper will attempt to shed some light on the matter of terrorism generally and what might be some effective coherent responses.  
Terrorism entered our vocabulary in the 18thcentury, as the word began to be used to describe events such as what unfolded in the aftermath of terror following the French revolution. But there can be little doubt many prior forms of political violence have punctuated history, masked in various guises such as the misplaced zealous fervour of the crusaders whose atrocities seems unimaginable as do many of the past ideologies which invite indiscriminate violence spurred on by spurious moral claims.  However, in term of philosophical discussion the subject of terrorism increased dramatically after the attacks on the USA on the 11th September 2001.
Terrorism is almost always associated with violence or the threat of intimidation, by a state or groups against innocent citizens and consequently the spread a dreaded widespread fear underpins its purposes and cements the power of its perpetrators.    
 But Terrorism also emerges as a causality of war or armed conflicts of one kind or another. We even see evidence in the later stages of WW2, as the allies’ patience was exhausted, so that non-combatant civilians were deliberately targeted in the bombardment of cities and the explosion of the atomic bomb resulting in millions of innocents being killed.

Determinologists justify such action as ending the war earlier from an enemy that might have inflicted further untold misery and mass genocide. But this justification is of cold comfort to those innocents killed and their surviving families in the engulfing fire bomb quite apart from unresolved matter of whether or not it brought about an earlier end to the war.

A second issue concerns governments who simply declare an organisation to be a terror organisation and its members to be terrorists regardless of whether or not they may be defending themselves from oppression or even invasion. In fact the failure of the United Nations to agree on a definition of “terrorism” for inclusion in international law highlights this conundrum. On the one side you have the Islamic countries who do not tolerate any definition that included liberation movements whilst Western countries are equally vehement to exclude state owned agencies being found guilty of terrorism. Here we have a failure of humanity to admit to failures as each side maintains the facade of a superior philosophical perspective where none exists.  

Notwithstanding the difficulties of determining a satisfactory definition for terrorism one is forced to retreat to the simplistic approach that reflects everyday terms; indiscriminate violence or intimidation inflicted on non-combatants or innocent bystanders in an effort to secure control or victory by its perpetrators.
This definition would seem to confirm that terrorism is never justifiable but it would also serve to implicate all countries at one time or another as being complicit. It would nevertheless be a much more honest starting point to agree on what measures would be taken in the future to combat the ideologies that leave us exposed to its terrors.  But before that, one needs to contemplate what drives young people to join such terrorist organisations.

What is the allure of young people enlisting with terrorist organisations?

The first point to make is the underlying socioeconomic pressures at work arising from record youth unemployment in Australia and abroad, often concentrated in ethnic groups or migrants struggling to find their place, can create an environment susceptible to the allure of terrorist ideologies over those values of the local society. 
The terrorists message seems disarmingly simple yet effective in a us versus them approach.

The terrorist organisations depict an inclusiveness for potential jihadists to join the fighters and to share in the "spoils" of not only capturing war hardware but also even to find a bride who shares the same ideology.

The justification is by way of caricature of westerners as a force that oppress Muslims the world over, evoking deceptive descriptions as "Crusaders," which attempt to link the past atrocities of centuries earlier as justification for their present response.  Hence the call to arms brings with it the appeal to young people who are called to the inclusive fold with poetic words to align their destiny as young lions to fight against the so called infidels and idolaters of the west.  

Suicide bombers  

But an even more puzzling question is what brings Suicide Bombers to detonate themselves and cause loss of life to innocent bystanders? Is it a religious fervour, and or the fragrant perfume of promised paradise for martyrdom?

Islam is a beautiful peaceful religion

In Islam suicide is forbidden and its incidence is at a lower pro rata rate to population than the West. A taking of a life is only allowed by way of justice with the death penalty for murder, but it is also acknowledged that forgiveness is better. Harming innocent bystanders, even in war, is forbidden under the Quran. On a personal level Muslims are generally peaceful, honest, hard-working, civic minded people, no different to any other societies. But we need to hear more from theologians to counter both the on line and off line allure.

Meaning of Jihad

The crux of the matter and what brings fear to the mind is the term Jihad, which is to exert utmost effort, to strive, to struggle. Jihad has many different meanings, but it is simplistically attributed in non-Islamic cultures to a “Religious War”. It has the same negative connotation in the West as “Crusade” has in the Islamic world, an association there with the Christen Crusaders who fought the Muslims for control of the Holy Land. The Link to a religious fervour as a precursor to violence is indeed a highly tenuous one. You might say Islamic fundamentalism is an enabler, rather than a motivator for these acts of terror. Violence in the conflict zones is largely a secular struggle, unconnected to religion.
Another perspective

Dr Robert Pape from the University of Chicago sums up the position very well in my opinion: What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.

Religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but it is rarely the root cause. The general pattern in data supports these conclusions.
First, nearly all suicide terrorist attacks –301 of the 315 I studied –took place as part of organised political or military campaigns.

Second democracies are uniquely vulnerable to suicide terrorists: America, France, and India. Israel, Russia. Sri Lanka and Turkey have been the targets of almost every suicide attack of the past two decade.
Third suicide terrorist campaigns are directed toward a strategic objective from Lebanon to Israel to Sri Lanka to Kashmir to Chechnya. The sponsors of every campaign-18 organisations in all-are seeking to maintain political self-determination. Before Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 there was no Hezbollah suicide terrorist campaign against Israel; indeed Hezbollah came into existence only after this event. Before the Sri Lankan military began moving into Tamil homelands of the Island in 1987, the Tamil Tigers did not use suicide attacks. Before the increase in the Jewish settlers on the West bank in the 1980”s Palestinian groups did not use suicide terrorist, and true to form, there has never been documented suicide attack in Iraq until the American Invasion in 2003.


Whilst it is acknowledged our response to terrorism must include some tighter security measures what seems to be missing is more spending to ensure wherever possible practical compassionate outcomes, which seek to address its underlying causes, following  consultation with the relevant community leaders.   

I think that in this respect it would very helpful  to hear more from theologians validating why religions such as Islam do not condone the use of violence, and the west needs to give more thought on why we became so intractably involved in Iraq, whilst we stayed away from Syria. This may entail an admission of past mistakes in Iraq, and to adopt a more comprehensive foreign policy that seeks to understand more clearly the reasons for conflict. Certainly Australia should not follow blindly in America’s footsteps as it has in the past. It will take a long time for America to recover from is loss of credibility in the world stage, to be respected as a genuine peacekeeper who is able to help make the world a better place.

In the meantime we desperately need to counter the rhetoric of terrorist organisations with counter arguments after consulting with the relevant  communities to formulate a practical narrative that better explains the history and what steps can be taken in the absence of fear and loathing. This will involve an on –line and off line response, largely missing from the current policy. 

Banning these currently engaged from ever returning is not going to enhance our security but improved understanding as to why they enlisted in the first place and then possibly to even engage those who have a change of heart, will. 

Friday, March 20

Dont change Hansard

In "Joyce to be grilled on Grimes sacking" (AFR, March 16) Laura Tingle reports Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce will come under concerted parliamentary attack from Labor over the sacking on Friday of Mr Joyce's department head, after he apparently sought to insist that his department not be implicated in a misleading of Parliament.
This all began as a rewriting of Hansard of an answer given by Mr Joyce in Parliament which has now spread to a much broader controversy after Dr Grimes' appointment was terminated by Mr Abbott on Friday. In this respect, Joe Fitzgibbon is also seeking a broader inquiry into the practice of rewriting the Hansard record in recent years. But what begs the question is why the tradition continues in the first place,which allows Ministers and MPs seven days to make minor changes to the Hansard record, inviting a subjective judgement.
Imagine a court allowing subsequent amendments to be made to the court transcript of what was said during a trial, which is often relied upon in further proceedings.
Hansard also needs to record exactly what was said, regardless of poor grammar, unintended omissions or references. The protocol of issuing a revised statement by the Minister to correct any omissions or unintended inaccuracies, should always be followed, which may have avoided the spectacle of the termination of Dr Grime's tenure.

Tuesday, March 17

Psalm 42 As the deer longs

I have been member of our local church choirs for over 25 years and I never tire of singing liturgical music, especially the Psalms.
Psalms can be sung as a hymn or as a responsorial Psalm which is how they were first intended; the verse/chorus is repeatedly sung by the congregation after the choir sings the verses.
The Psalms have several authors; with many attributable to King David. Most people are familiar with The Lord is my Shepherd which is prefaced simply as a Psalm of David. Whether it was actually written by King David is problematic as scholars recognize many of the events described within these Psalms attributed to him happened many centuries later.

What I find interesting about the collections of 150 Psalms is the extent of the full range of emotions and drama that are cleverly interwoven to describe celebrated past events and hopeful aspirations of a community; of a rich theology. 

They reflect the poetic nature of the Hebrew Bible which in turn is indicative of the popularity of poetry in Israel and its surrounding regions at the time. According to the Jerusalem Bible’s introduction to the Psalms they fit into three categories , Hymns, Entreaty (for use in public and temple court) and thanksgiving.

Here are some of the words which would fit under the heading of an "Entreaty" shown here in abbreviated form. Psalm 42~is headed: For the Choirmaster ~ of the sons of Korah (which is a reference to the sons of Korah who were musicians at that time of the original composition.)

As the deer longs for running streams,
so I long, so I long, so I long for you.

A-thirst my soul for you the God who is my life!
When shall I see, when shall I see,
see the face of God?

As the deer longs for running streams,
so I long, so I long, so I long for you.

Continually the foe delights in taunting me:
“Where is God, where is your God?”
Where, O where, are you?

As the deer longs for running streams,
so I long, so I long, so I long for you.

Then I shall go unto the altar of my God.
Praising you, O my joy and gladness,
I shall praise your name.

As the deer longs for running streams,
so I long, so I long, so I long for you.

Friday, March 6

Reflections on ''out of body type experiences".

When I was last in hospital I spoke to a young man opposite me who was recovering from a near fatal car crash. He had fallen asleep while driving and his foot apparently had jammed full on the accelerator pedal as his  car left the road and ploughed into a tree. Miraculously surviving the horrendous ordeal he was pronounced clinically dead during surgery before being brought back to life. Subsequently he became the subject of intense interest from medical staff at the large public hospital as he recounted in intricate detail the procedures he recalled during the period he was pronounced  clinically dead, arising as a consequence of his out of body near death experience. He told me he no longer held any fears of dying.
But out of body experiences need not relate to such traumatic near death events, but are often associated with the use of hallucinogenic drugs or from hypnosis, or from emotional traumas or deep seated meditative practices. Many of these experiences no doubt are due to the confusion on the part of the experiencer, but others, such as was the case of the young man opposite me in hospital are underpinned by reported verifiable events.
This phenomenon has become more prevalent in modernity, no doubt triggered by every day medical resuscitative applications; which I have I have even noticed in my limited circle. Some time ago a good friend, who has since passed away, told me of his vivid out of body experience and another recently recounted the near death experience of his father following revival after a heart attack. Others recall childhood memories not mentioned previously for fear of ridicule.  I recall vividly when I visited Kiribati, (once known as the Gilbert Islands) hearing the story of a volunteer who had experienced an out of body event involving their local culture. Coincidentally, a century earlier, Robert Louis Stevenson, had set out in his south sea voyages for that same destination seeking emotional and physical healing whereupon he was to discover and documented their rich culture. Hence my interest has prompted me to write a discussion paper about this mysterious phenomena.  
This paper defines out of body experiences as rational memories of seeing a recognisable self from a conscious awareness from outside of that place. The vision usually is of normal surrounds and or people to the extent the experiencer is an onlooker from a floating type dimension looking down.
The aim of this paper is to discuss a credible possible explanation.
Early beginnings and development    
The intricate entanglement of the material body with the integrated circuitry of the central nervous system to support the complexity of a massive cell structure, has only enabled humans to discern oneself as separate to self, very late in the evolutionary cycle, possibly only within the last 100,000 years.   
The first early experiences may have simply arisen from gazing into the flickering embers of campfires to become absorbed into a deep imaginative or meditative trance like state. The likely effect of such a feeling, then, may conceivably be not much different to that in modernity which many attribute to various states of enhanced serenity or even wellbeing.  
Tribal existence then was highly reliant on staying in tune with the environment, as survival meant adapting to the changing seasons and migratory patterns. This in turn necessitated critical reliance on our sensory preceptors so that stories and visions became etched into the culture and customs of disparate groups. Seeking shelter or refuge deep within caves, evidenced by the silhouettes and drawings etched onto on the rock walls, they became the first of the sacred cathedrals of humanity. No doubt, as that ventured into the deeper regions with increased curiosity that experience gave rise to vivid  images and feelings, just as they will today, if one spends any prolonged time deep within the earth in complete darkness.  At the same time the hypnotic type dances, under the ever changing starry cosmos, precipitated trance like states, possibly fuelled from prior highly charged anticipatory emotional build-ups.   

When I was staying in the Republic of Kiribati, it was interesting to discover how their culture and oral history was celebrated in the many elaborate dances combined with harmonised singing. Their training and rehearsal extends over several months, as young men are expected to refrain from any intimacy to gain strength before each important celebration. I learnt from a local volunteer from Canada, when we visited the corral atoll of Abyiang she had decided to learn their language and dance that they were arduous and extremely difficult to remember.
She recounted a story to me of a young man who had kindly dedicated himself to train her for a dance but died several months before the intended celebration. During the dance she lost her way but as her mind went blank, so she experienced what she thought was an out of body experience. The way this happened was at this point the image of the man came to her who assumed authority for the dance.  Afterwards many complemented her on her performance.
Such an idea to traverse time and space is evident in the practice of the Great Plains Indian tribes in North America in their quest to make contact with a guardian spirit, through fasting, isolation and meditation, which involves ‘Out of Body type experiences’. This quest was also associated with the rite of passage at puberty, to avail oneself of the ancestral knowledge from spiritual out of body encounters to connect with the distant far off spiritual places to gain wisdom and understanding. In Australia the aboriginal culture believed all life evolved from the dreamtime period of creation with its myths which provided the stepping stones in the connectivity to the environment and to all living things; to provide meaning to their life, death and constant rebirth.
Mystical religious ‘’out of body’’ experiences or visions. 
Subsequently over time the term out-of-body experience was also applied to ever widening aspects of visionary and mystical type experiences. There are many examples within the mystery traditions which often return to the familiar theme of losing one’s fear of death, and more particularly to provide comfort in times of severe trauma or persecution on the promise of an afterlife. The experiences would also conceivably have underwritten a spirit of embolderment or authority or meaning to give confidence of spiritual continuance in the afterlife.  
Certainly in religious terms, probably the most notable was that of the apostle St Paul on the road to Damascus, where he describes a vision of the future kingdom which some attribute to an out of body type experience, although its true meaning remains somewhat obscure and is hotly debated by scholars today.  Although these accounts don’t directly reference seeing the body separate to self there are many references to such a term, to give credence to the idea St Paul was familiar with the idea.  
In the Asian region the degree of complexity was astonishing, as according to Julian Ching (Christianity and Chinese religions) in their evolving Taoist tradition there existed a mammoth divination manual comprising of 1,000 volumes. The essence of such practices was inherent in the idea of transcending the communications between self and the inner self with direct out of body union with the TAO –the way.
In modernity many of the practices of the ancients have tended to be regarded as mere magic or superstition, but in more recent times we are beginning to understand such ideas from a more enlightened viewpoint. In fact the idea of magic or mystery is entwined onto most people’s adaptive style of thinking more than we realize, regardless of the degree of sophistication or the way of life we choose in relation to our beliefs or non-beliefs as the case may be. Understanding others and their motivations, gives credence to how our beliefs and purpose in life are shaped and formed over time. Interestingly enough there are many physicists and neuroscientists who posit a non-mystical technical basis for support in relation to put of body experiences.  One such advocate has been Fritjof Capra’s TAO OF PHYSICS whose motivation for writing his book was Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both.
The evolving interest of science and neuroscience
The human brain is the most complex creation known in the entire universe, yet it weighs in at only a bit over three pounds but is made up of over 100 billion cells. Along its six and one half miles of integrated circuitry the interneuron chemical reactions enable one to switch nerve impulses on or off - mostly from the perspective of an auto pilot since we are not aware of their functions until alerted that something is wrong. Although our knowledge of the human brain is incomplete we do understand how circuitry links the older limbic areas to the more recently evolved executive functioning frontal lobe regions which gives rise to the various ephemeral states of consciousness. This later evolution enables us to make many complex or abstract decisions or ideas- a tiny slither of the up to a billion or so decisions made for us each day of which we are unaware.  But exactly how all of this occurs in a physical sense at the micro level along the neural highways remains somewhat of a mystery. 
A credible possible explanation for out of body type experiences could conceivably entail a concept of a dualistic mind functioning process as opposed to the idea it (the mind) must only be the property of the material brain. At this point it is worth acknowledging the idea of the purely material mind gained credence over the past few hundred years as consequence of the Newtonian mechanised clocklike view of reality. Given the fact large scale physics had been demonstrated to work very well it was not surprising this view gained traction in materialistic philosophical concepts to become the basis for determinism. This was predicated on the basis of the predictability for all events given a knowledge of the underlying initial conditions. But the reality is our knowledge of the human brain in its present state is incomplete in relation to the neural signalling which makes up our consciousness.   
In the latter period beginning with the 20th century, in relation to outcomes of small particle physics known as quantum mechanics it was established such outcomes are indeed unquantifiable, which was first made famous under Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, to create the requirement for an ultimate "observer".  
Physicist Paul Davies, who is author of the Other Worlds and The Edge of Infinity, maintains that the discoveries of 20th-century physics — relativity and the quantum theory — are now pointing towards a more mystical way to view reality  and opens up the possibility of a new appreciation of our place in the universe.
Hence for an out of body experiences to be believable only requires one to accept the possibility of a dualistic view of the mind or spirit. One part (call it a soul if you want to) represents the form of a non-destructible conscious awareness, which could continue on in some disembodied form after death. In a nutshell the idea already exists for a nonlocal depository of brain particle – wave collapsed symmetry within mind consciousness, so that the continuation of that which is already present in some disembodied form may not be such a big deal after all.
Eminent physicist Roger Penrose in collaboration with neuroscientist Stuart  Hereof explains that under quantum theory the brains processing output may conceivably entail non-localised wave and particle entwinement in the same manner as everything is linked in the wider universe. Hence the mystery where traditional large scale physics give rise to certainty to conquer the tyrannies of space and time as in space travel, don’t apply at the sub atomic level.
Penrose proposes the mind processing possibilities at this sub atomic level (which ultimately comprises of you and me) into definite values emerges as a reality from the collapse of the wave function into our conscious experience. Hence the conscious experience, which in turn influences our behaviour, is a combination of space time continuum, comprising both non-localised particles and their collapsed wave functions within the mind. If Penrose is correct then there already exists a “non- locally” brain existence, so that we are linked in one way or another mysteriously to matter within the wider cosmos. That link conceivably might live on in some embodied form after death. Certainly, any form of out of body experience, triggered by stimuli may be just a precursor or glimpse of that ultimate reality.  
Those opposed to such views say that the brain may be able to will itself into producing sensations which are akin to a perceived reality of another body moving outside the boundaries of one’s physical body. Hence the sceptical view is that out of body experiences can be triggered by stimuli of one kind or another in the area of the brain responsible for imagining body movements, to flash an image of yourself as if you have that view from another point in space located outside of the physical body. But they cannot offer any explanation to the detailed accounts of items, procedures and conversations remembered and confirmed by medical staff as correct during periods when patients were declared clinically dead.
I think it is fitting to end this paper with a quote from Albert Einstein who said “Nature shows us the tail of the lion. But I do not doubt that the lion belongs to it, even though he cannot at once reveal himself because if his enormous size “. 
So it seems that conceivably such experiences may be just a precursor or glimpse of that ultimate gigantic reality, so that hopefully this discussion paper does provide some food for thought on this enduring mystery. For there can be no doubt there are persuasive reasons to support the idea life itself and near death experiences are inextricably linked to the infinite cosmos. It is also true that mystery plays a much more pivotal role in our culture than is generally realised in our attempt to understand reality, so that our beliefs and purpose in adapting to our existence are largely shaped and formed by others, inclusive of out of body type experiences. Finally I think one can say with some confidence there are no grounds to be dismissive of these accounts or to hold firm to the idea that the mind must be solely a property of the material brain.  

Sunday, March 1

Ethics test still needed for atificial intelligence

My letter as per below appeared in the AFR to day with a supporting humorous  cartoon.
In “Ghost in the digital machine haunts mothers of invention” (AFR 26th February 2015) Maximilian Walsh reports prominent figures from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk foresee a fourth industrial revolution driven by machine brains, where humans may no longer control the outcome.  Hawking asserts primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have already proved very useful, but he is fearful of the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans. Hawking concludes it could take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate, superseding humans limited by slow biological evolution.
It does seem somewhat fanciful to compare the biology of a human brain, with its myriad circuitry to that of future very powerful computers reliant solely on circuitry, attempting to mimic the ephemeral states of human consciousness.
But what is relevant is that all progress and new inventions do not absolve their users or developers from the responsibility of ensuring ethical outcomes, which apply to artificial intelligence. Ethics and good governance becomes more important as advances of the sort envisaged by Hawing become realities. 
Advancements don’t change what was always the case for individuals who can’t pass the buck by saying they were doing their job, as in allowing artificial intelligence not to be subject to checks and balances.