Many economists insist that free trade benefits everyone. The argument goes like this:
Let’s say there are two countries, Country 1 and Country 2, each with a bread factory and two citizens who buy bread from their factory.
There is a trade barrier in place preventing the factories from selling to the other country.
Each factory makes a profit of $2 on each loaf of bread.
The factory in Country 1 earns $4 from its sales. The people spend $40 on bread.
The factory in Country 2 also earns $4 from its sales of bread. It’s citizens only spend $20.
So, the net expenditure of money in Country 1 is $36, and in Country 2 $16.
Now, let’s see what happens if the trade barrier is removed.
Everybody now buys from the factory in Country 2.
So the factory in Country 1 earns nothing (it sells nothing) but its citizens spend only $20.
The factory in Country 2 earns $8 from its sales of bread to four citizens now. The citizens of country 2 spend the usual $20.
So, the net expenditure of money in Country 1 is now only $20 and in Country 2 only $12.
Economists argue that through this mechanism, the free market benefits all trading parties.
But it turns out that not everybody wins if you consider a different model – one that includes businesses shutting down and unemployment.
When there are trade barriers, everyone works for the factories in their own countries.
With the barriers in place, the factory in Country 1 pays a salary of $20 to its two employees.
The factory in Country 2, being more efficient, pays a salary of $40 to its employees.
Now the net earnings in Country 1 (earnings – expenditure) are $4 (because the earnings cancel out the expenditure of the citizens, and the factory earns $4). The net earnings in Country 2 are now $64 (because the citizens spend only $10 each while earning $40, and the factory earns $4).
Now let’s say free trade is introduced.
The bread factory in Country 2 starts selling its bread at $10 in Country 1.
The bread factory in Country 1 shuts down (because no one will buy its bread at $20).
The citizens of Country 1 who worked for the bread factory no longer have an income. They still have to buy bread to survive (using their savings) but their expenditure is lower not at $20.
So now Country 1 ends up with a net earnings of $ -20 (a drop of $24).
The net earnings in Country 2 go up to $68 (and increase of $4).
So in this model, not only does the earnings of Country 1 go down but also the earnings of the world as a whole (because there are fewer people gainfully employed).
However, things don’t stop there.
The bread factory realizes that by hiring the citizens of Country 1 to work for it instead of citizens of Country 2, it can cut its cost of production in half (because salaries in Country 1 are half that of Country 2). By doing so, it can start making profits of $6 per loaf of bread.
So now you have the citizens of Country 2 facing unemployment (no earnings).
So the net earnings of Country 2 drop to $4 (a drop of $64).
The earnings of Country 1 on the other hand go up to $20 (a gain of $40).
But there is again a drop in the earnings of the world, because though the same number of people are employed, it is higher-paid people who are now out of a job.
This is not compatible with a model of free trade that continually improves things for everybody.
Of course, I’ve used a very simple model, but it reflects the truth that when free trade is introduced, there are winners and losers and that the weaker parties are the losers.
There seems to be a way to predict who the winners and losers in any attempt to introduce free trade will be.
In models of military engagements, the principle of force is used to predict the outcome. Given roughly equal equipment and training, the stronger force almost always wins.
The reason for that is shown in the following diagram. Let’s say there is a red force with 4 soldiers and a green force with 8 soldiers. Each side fires a shot every minute. Each soldier aims at an enemy soldier and fires, with a 50% probability of hitting his target. After the first volley, the red force would have fired 4 shots and hit 2 green soldiers. But the green force would have fired 8 shots and hit 4 red soldiers.
So the losses would be disproportionately higher for the weaker party, and the green force would win the battle with the loss of two of their own.
It appears the same model can be used to predict the winners in economics too.
In economic models, the contending forces would be firms or employees.
Larger and better equipped firms (which can produce cheaper products) can be expected to win (push small firms or more expensive employees in direct competition out of business) in any market where free trade is introduced.
For example, before India traded freely with the USA, there were many local soft drink manufacturers (Torino, Thums Up and Limca) in India. When Coca Cola and Pepsi entered the market, all the Indian soft drink brands had to sell out.
Similarly cheaper workforces (which cost less to hire) can be expected to win.
An example would be the use of immigrant labour in many countries (especially the USA) for agriculture.
So, how can a weaker economic segment (be they workers or industry) be protected?
Through barriers (barriers allowed by trade agreements). Barriers (something that a force can shelter behind) may be used to protect weaker forces of any kind.
Here are a few barriers used in economics. As you can see, barriers to trade are already in heavy use though people talk as if free trade is widely practised.
The US workforce in the computer industry being more expensive than an Indian workforce, has been protected by visa and fee barriers.
Not palatable to Indian industry of course, but effective in protecting high-end jobs in the USA.
Now what I don’t understand is why the USA uses barriers to protect jobs for skilled people who are highly qualified and quite capable of acquiring more skills and competing on quality.
I would suppose that if the USA used barriers, they should probably do so to protect jobs at the low end of the economy (helping out poorly skilled or unskilled workers who’d find it harder to acquire more skills or compete on quality) as India does (through a minimum salary requirement for work visas, which is aimed squarely at keeping out cheaper Chinese labour from infrastructure [say road building] projects).
I quote from an 1840 English parliamentary inquiry about India (taken from the above article):
Before a British Parliamentary Committee in 1840] Montgomery Martin stated that he . . . was convinced that an outrage had been committed ‘by reason of the outcry for free trade on the part of England without permitting India a free trade herself.’ After supplying statistical data of Indian textile exports to Great Britain, he pointed out that between 1815–1832 prohibitive duties ranging from 10 to 20, 30, 50, 100 and 1,000 per cent were levied on articles from India. … ‘Had this not been the case,’ wrote Horace Wilson in his 1826History of British India, ‘the mills of Paisley and Manchester would have been stopped in their outset, and could scarcely have been again set in motion, even by the power of steam. They were created by the sacrifice of Indian manufacture. Had India been independent, she could have retaliated, would have imposed prohibitive duties on British goods and thus have preserved her own productive industry from annihilation. This act of self-defence was not permitted her’” (Clairmonte 1960: 86-87).
The use of models to determine winners, as described above, can empower governments to decide which sectors of the economy are most vulnerable to competition (so action may be taken to protect them).
Many protective actions can be taken without violating free trade obligations.
Fair Barrier 1
The best example of a fair protection policy is progressive liberalization.
For example, when the Chinese government introduced foreign direct investment (FDI) into the retail sector in China, it did so gradually, increasing the percentage of ownership permitted to foreign owners over 15 years.
In the course of the 15 years, local firms learnt the tricks of the retail trade and were able to compete effectively against the new entrants.
In contrast, the Indian government went from discouraging the participation of Indian private firms in the railways and defense industries, to allowing 100% FDI in one shot, thus failing to give Indian firms the time to develop the capabilities or technical know-how to compete in these markets, with the result that bullet train and metro rail equipment needs to be imported in entirety (or imported with a ‘made in India’ veneer – assembled in Indian factories entirely owned and operated by French firms).
Fair Barrier 2
Another policy that could protect and benefit businesses in certain sectors is grants for nascent industries with vast future potential. In the USA, there are small business grants, research grants and subsidies for small firms.
In contrast, the government of India seems to have failed to create a level playing field for local startups. I recall many years ago (at the height of the internet boom) when the government of India had a small business grants program, it had a clause specifically leaving out Indian software startups. Somehow the government of India had decided that they would not make research grants available to local startups in the highest-growth industry in India at the time.
Here’s more on how the Indian government seems to not be as accessible to local startups as it is to larger global startups/firms competing with them. This is a problem that needs to be fixed.
It’s easier for a foreign startup or MNC to get forgiveness for inadvertent violation than it is for a domestic startup (today foreign startups enjoy better access to political leaders and therefore easier forgiveness).
Uber got 1.5 years of forgiveness on payments that Ola did not get, and Amazon got forgiveness for having its own supply centres, and not following the marketplace model, which Flipkart did not get. Flipkart had to change its model to comply with the marketplace model. Both Ola and FK were hurt by this favoritism to Uber and Amazon.
Fair Barrier 3
Another method is to strengthen the weakest parts of the workforce in the face of competition from migrant/immigrant labour.
One policy that could help protect and improve the lot of weaker parts of the US workforce might be higher taxation, and using the tax money to:
Sponsor education programs (financial-need-based free college/training) to facilitate reemployment in growing industry segments.
Revive industries that could employ that part of the workforce in larger numbers (the manufacturing industry). One way to revive manufacturing that might be to create more outlets for US made goods and fund automation of manufacturing.
Visa barriers (Indian work visas require a minimum salary that effectively protects less skilled workers).
Fair Barrier 4
Using regulatory and tax barriers to FDI (as is done in China) to generate scalable revenue for local businesses.
In conclusion, I wanted to point out that if governments could start using models such as the one above to calculate who might win in various scenarios involving free trade (instead of assuming that everyone wins), they might be able to formulate better and more equitable economic policies for their citizens.
After Honda Motors opened the first Japanese auto plant in the U.S., in Marysville, Ohio, in the early nineteen-eighties, followed by an engine factory in nearby Anna, Ohio, the company faced an onslaught of vicious anti-Japanese ads on TV and in print, often supported by American manufacturing trade and labor groups.
The comparably subdued response to Chinese manufacturers speaks, on one hand, to changing circumstances, especially the broad acceptance of globalization in the United States and the desire, on the part of some politicians and business leaders, to create manufacturing jobs by whatever means necessary. But it also follows from a conclusion that American companies have reached about their Chinese counterparts: namely, that they are, thus far, relatively inconsequential rivals.
The government explained their decision as follows:
Land information minister Louise Upston told the BBC that its decision in September to block Pengxin’s purchase of Lochinver farm does not mean the country is not interested in attracting foreign investment.
“It’s [foreign investment’s] an important part of our economic strategy, but equally when we do have an application for sensitive land and assets – we will put it across the 21 criteria that we need to assess and make a decision based on that,” she says.
“We weren’t convinced that this particular application met that threshold, which is substantial and identifiable benefits for New Zealanders.”
Dr William Rolleston, president of the Federated Farmers of New Zealand, a group that lobbies on behalf of its farmer members, says some farmers are concerned about the scale of the purchases.
“New Zealanders don’t have an issue on ownership at a low level. No one would be concerned if 5% of farmland was owned by overseas buyers,” he says.
“But if 95% of the land in New Zealand was owned by overseas buyers, I think we would have an issue – it would reduce our strategic options in the future.”
Dr Rolleston’s sentiment echoes public concern from 2012 when Pengxin bought 16 dairy farms and sparked a debate about national identity.
During the last elections in 2014, opposition politicians stoked those fears by saying that New Zealanders risked becoming “tenants in their own land”
So, it appears that in New Zealand, the government wishes to keep resources such as land in local hands.
The Case of China
China seems to have laws that make it difficult for foreign firms to compete with local firms, making it a logical choice for them to outsource the manufacture of their goods to Chinese firms.
For example, if you are a Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise (WFOE), you need to pay the government 20% of the profits of your China operations.
First off, in your first year, you are going to essentially waste around $50,000 in just forming your WFOE, securing various government approvals, paying someone to figure out your taxes, and making up for all the mistakes you will make because you will be in, what is for you, a very strange land. On top of that will be your taxes, which you are going to need to pay on just about everything. Figure 20% on profits and even if you do not make profits, figure on them being imputed to you. And figure on having to pay around 40% to various of the Chinese governments as taxes on the salaries you pay your employees.
And all of this is going to mean that your costs are going to be considerably higher than whatever Chinese factory you are currently using to make your product. In Buying A Chinese Company? Why China Deals DON’T Get Done, I wrote of the way this domestic-foreign price differential works in the context of a client looking to buy its Chinese manufacturer:
I said that there is a good chance the Chinese manufacturer is paying half of its employees completely under the table and reporting to the government only half of what it was paying the other half. I then talked of how there is also a good chance the Chinese manufacturer is underpaying its taxes and of how its rent also may be paid under the table. I then said that this sort of thing may be all well and good for Chinese companies, but that if the US manufacturer were to buy this Chinese manufacturer, it would need to do so as a WFOE and it would then immediately be on a “whole ‘nother level” with respect to China’s various tax authorities.
So, it is evident from the above that most of China’s 1990s FDI came from Hong Kong and therefore was not really Foreign DI.
So, what benefits does blocking FDI give to a local area?
Might barriers to FDI help economies?
In the case of China, the advantage seems obvious.
If foreign investors could open their own factories, they would hire Chinese labour and be able to own the scalable income from the proceeds of manufacturing, passing on only the salaries (which are low in China) to their employees in China.
It is only the inability of foreign investors to purchase and operate Chinese factories as cheaply that forces them to outsource to Chinese firms.
So, the barriers to FDI in China help drive business to Chinese firms.
These policies can also force the transfer of technology to local firms.
Contrast this with the case of India.
India had a similar boom driven by cheap labour in the form of software services.
There were hundreds of small, medium and large firms in Bangalore offering software services to the financial sector in the USA.
However, a trend I have seen in recent years is for US firms to buy up medium-sized software firms in India and get their software related work executed by these now captive software teams than to outsource work to Indian firms.
So, the inability to get work drives many local IT services firms to sell their operations to US-based firms.
This effectively reduces the total revenue earned locally to just the salaries paid instead of salaries+profits.
I am not certain of how the numbers compare with the boom years but I think the absence of a road up the IT services value chain results in the middle being cut out, leaving only the very large firms and a host of relatively tiny shops in the local IT services market.
So, had FDI barriers existed in the software sector, it would have forced foreign consumers of IT services to access Indian programmers through an Indian corporate entity, increasing the share of the pie that accrued to the local economy, and increasing the quantity of business opportunities for local IT firms.
Take the case of New Zealand again.
The argument put forth by the government there is that they need to keep control of land (a scarce resource in New Zealand).
In other words, the restrictions on FDI are meant to allow local firms the retain control of revenue generating resources.
Contrast this with the software industry in India again.
In software the key resources are human resources (the engineers). And around the world, software engineers are a scarce resource.
There was no barrier to FDI that would allow local firms to compete with foreign firms (which could pay more because of their stronger currencies) for those resources.
The result seems to be a stratification of software engineering resources by capability.
The engineers with the best skills (who could effectively develop products) mostly ended up in American software firms and can be paid salaries in the range of Rs. 60 lakhs per annum.
Engineers with less valuable skill-sets (who can at most configure, install, test or maintain products) seem to gravitate to Indian IT services firms where salaries seem to stagnate at about a quarter that amount.
This flight of resources might have contributed to preventing forays into product development by software services firms in India.
So, in a sense, by providing outside firms direct access to scarce resources, the opportunity to make a lot more money might have been allowed to slip away.
In conclusion, it may be said that sometimes, a clever use of barriers to FDI seems to help extract more revenue (by blocking access to valuable resources) and thus create larger surpluses for local businesses. Those surpluses in turn help build more infrastructure and capacity and improve the economy. The case of China, contrasted with that of India, seems to illustrate the case where such barriers might have been beneficial to the economy.
Yesterday, I found myself giving a follow on lecture titled “Fun with Text – Managing Text Analytics”.
Here are the slides:
“Hacking Text Analytics” was meant to help students understand a range text analytics problems by reducing them into simpler problems.
But it was designed with the understanding that they would hack their own text analytics tools.
However, in project after project, I was seeing that engineers tended not to build their own text analytics tools, but instead rely on handy and widely available open source products, and that the main thing they needed to learn was how to use them.
So, when I was asked to lecture to an audience at the NASSCOM Big Data and Analytics Summit in Hyderabad, and was advised that a large part of the audience might be non-technical, and could I please base the talk on use-cases, I tried a different tack.
So I designed another lecture “Fun with Text – Managing Text Analytics” about:
3 types of opportunities for text analytics that typically exist in every vertical
3 use cases dealing with each of these types of opportunities
3 mistakes to avoid and 3 things to embrace
And the take away from it is how to go about solving a typical business problem (involving text), using text analytics.
In this article, I will attempt to argue that the mechanisms used by religions for their own propagation inevitably foster intolerance and extremism.
I will attempt to show that over time, the tendency to extremism in religions can only increase.
First, it will be necessary to understand the mechanism by which religions propagate themselves. In order for a religion to take root and grow, it must A) provide better incentives than another to its promoters and B) establish barriers to keep its promoters from switching to another religion.
A) Methods of Acquisition of Promoters
The mechanisms for the propagation of religious beliefs have evolved over time as can be seen from a study of ancient and modern religions.
Early religions seem to have been explanatory in nature, and their main function appears to have been that of explaining physical phenomena and how the world came into existence.
The earliest religions of almost all ancient civilizations – be they the Greek, the Indian, the Chinese, the Anasazi or the Maya – seem to have developed mythological explanations of the workings of the world.
This rich mythological framework could have provided work for story-tellers and bards, hence spreading through their art.
So their earliest mechanisms for growth probably involved monetary incentives for artists and other individuals for promoting religious fictions that explained the workings of nature.
As humanity developed the means to travel over larger distances, these stories would have spread.
The religions that would have been most likely to survive would have been the ones with the most powerful stories and the best narratives.
With the advent of agriculture, as humans began to live in settlements with a high population density, a new mechanism for propagation would have become more effective and rewarding for a religion’s promoters.
With static populations in highly populated areas like cities and towns, religions would have begin to market themselves through religious organizations that maintained places of worship or organized religious events. These would have helped them reach more people within a town or city, just like a store in a busy street corner or a fair in a fair ground sells more goods than a push cart vendor pushing his wares through the streets of a town.
Individual story-tellers would never have been able to generate a sufficient surplus to build similar edifices or organize large scale events. So religions that could create organizations that could pull in earnings from a large number of adherents, enough to pay for the creation of a professional class of promoters – professional priests – would have become more successful.
Fictions such as “If you contribute V to do W at place X or before deity Y at time T, you will have a better chance of succeeding at Z” would have been used to induce people to pay money for the services of the promoters and to travel to meet the promoters at regular intervals. The earnings from such service offerings would then have been used to maintain the organizations, set up edifices or organized events which would have served to further propagate the religion.
What is important to observe is that once religions evolved the ability to generate sufficient income to sustain a priesthood, they could grow exponentially, because the more priests they had, the more people they could convince of the truth of their religious fictions. And the more people they convinced, the more they would earn from the consumers, and the more priests they could pay for. This cycle would repeat with increasing rates of growth and the largest religion in any location would grow into a monopoly.
The tendency for the larger organization to win (network effects) would have sufficed to provide such religions with a defensive barrier against new religions.
You can take the case of the new religions Jainism and Buddhism in India. Neither could take broad-based and permanent root in India because the Hindu religion with which they were in competition had at all times a larger organization and many more followers. Once they had lost political patronage, the new religions receded in popularity rather precipitously.
Owing to the network effects of size that make it hard to displaced established organized religions, challengers to organized religions invariably required political support from the top namely the direct support of the king. Examples include the support of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten to the monotheistic cult of the Aten in Egypt, the support of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in the case of Buddhism in India and the support of the Roman Emperor Constantine the First in the case of Christianity in Europe.
So a class of religions then came into existence which could displace religions that relied on priestly orders alone by the use of political patronage.
These were religions that in addition to wielding priestly orders of their own, propagated themselves through symbiotic relations with political powers.
Such religions would have had to provide some value to political power. Political power was typically increased through war between political entities (in the past) and through political projects that are attractive enough to mobilize the support of large numbers of people (in the present).
The number of soldiers that can be raised for war would have been dependent on:
the degree to which such soldiers are not dissuaded by fear of injury or death,
the rewards that may be gained by the soldiers from war spoils, and
the motivation to make the effort in the service of a cause.
The number of volunteers that can be raised for a political project would have been dependent on:
the rewards that may be gained by the volunteers from the outcome, and
the motivation to make the effort in the service of a cause.
Religions that rely on this strategy for propagating themselves increase all the above incentives by a) helping people overcome the fear of death and fear of defeat or financial loss, by b) sanctioning benefits to their adherents (including allowing rapacious actions) in war or in a political cause and by c) providing people with an excuse to go to war or engage in a political cause (providing them something to fight for).
To do that, they would have had to take recourse to one or more of the following fictions:
Religious fictions promising after-life insurance in return for their efforts
Religious fictions promising divine help for their projects
Religious fictions permitting greedy behaviour during the project
Religious fictions that lead to the exclusion of other religious/political groups
Religious political projects
Let’s examine each of these in turn:
Feature 1: Religious fiction of a desirable after-life
The Norse religion promised Norsemen that death in war gave a Viking a ticket to Valhalla – the hall of the heroic dead.
In the Christian religion, there is a place where souls are believed to go if they’ve been good in their lifetimes,and it’s called Heaven. Souls of religious martyrs are pictured as ending up there: “Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God … They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” (Bible, Revelation 20:4). Some people also seem to interpret the verse “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Bible, Matthew 10:39) as a promise of good things in the afterlife for someone who gives up his/her life for religious reasons.
In the religion of Islam, there is a concept of a paradise or Jannah (the garden of paradise). It might be possible to interpret the following “Did ye think that ye would enter Heaven without Allah testing those of you who fought hard (In His Cause) and remained steadfast?” (Qur’an, sura 3 (Al-i-Imran), ayah 142) as a promise that fighting in the cause of Islam shall lead to benefits in the afterlife. The hadiths also apparently consider Jihad to be one of the 8 doors to entering Jannah.
Such beliefs can have a huge effect on the decision making process of a person considering going to war for a religious cause or a political entity claiming to represent a religious cause.
The person would have two alternatives:
Staying away from war and facing social disapproval.
Going to war, risking dying or returning rich from plunder.
The first alternative would entail no risk of death, but there would be the pressure of disapproval from social circles (especially in societies with a strong concept of honor). The second alternative would be very risky because the worst-case outcome would be death.
The second choice would therefore be a logical choice only if the rewards-to-risks ratio were more palatable than the disapproval involved in the first choice. The risks in the second choice (dying in war) would feel more acceptable if there were an enticement attached to the worst-case scenario (the enticement of heaven after death).
As a result, a religion which sanctioned or rewarded dying for a cause would be able to raise larger armies of soldiers for a political leader than a religion that didn’t.
The benefit to the religion would be support for propagation of the religion by the political leaders and their soldiers.
Feature 2: Religious fiction promising divine help in a project
Just as religious fictions promising a felicitous afterlife serve to bring more soldiers to the battlefield, religious fictions promising victory in war help to keep more soldiers on the battlefield (prevent them from abandoning the fight and running away).
This is because the more a soldier believed that their side would win, the lower would be their expectation of desertion by their buddies, and lower the chances that they themselves would desert. Consequently an army of soldiers confident of winning would have a higher chance of really winning (all else being equal) and a lower chance of defeat and death.
Essentially, you can build a game theoretic canonical form representation of an army of 2 soldiers as shown below.
In a war, the benefits to each soldier can be modeled as a bi-matrix (normal-form game) as follows:
soldier 2 fights
soldier 2 flees
soldier 1 fights
soldier 1 flees
Normal form or payoff matrix of a 2-player, 2-strategy game
The first of the two numbers in the matrix represents the payoff to soldier 1.
The second of the two numbers in the matrix represents the payoff to soldier 2.
(The soldiers win something (represented by 5 points) if their army wins; they win nothing if their army loses; and they lose their life (represented by -5 points) if they do not flee and their army loses; we assume the army wins if both soldiers do not flee and loses if one or both flee).
If soldier 1 trusts soldier 2 not to flee the battlefield, the best strategy for soldier 1 is to stay and fight as well (since he will then get more benefits than if he flees).
If soldier 1 does not trust soldier 2 to stay on the battlefield (if he suspects that soldier 2 will run away), then the best strategy for soldier 1 is to run away himself (so that he does not remain on the battlefield and get killed).
So, this model shows that if two equal 2 man armies meet on a battlefield, the one whose soldiers trust each other more will win.
So, religions of a certain kind can supply two of the most important needs of a political leader keen on fighting a war – finding soldiers and keeping soldiers.
To do these, they need to have a good story of the afterlife, and they need to credibly promise victory in war.
An early Jewish holy book (carried forward into the Bible) called the book of the Judges contained stories of wars that were won as promised by god. In the stories, the Jews are shown as losing wars when not true to their religion, and winning them when true.
In the case of Islam, something similar can be seen after the defeat of the Muslim army in the Battle of Uhud in 625 A.D. After the loss, the prophet Muhammad is said to have explained the loss as follows: “Allah did indeed fulfil His promise to you when ye with His permission Were about to annihilate your enemy,-until ye flinched and fell to disputing about the order, and disobeyed it after He brought you in sight (of the booty) which ye covet. Among you are some that hanker after this world and some that desire the Hereafter. Then did He divert you from your foes in order to test you but He forgave you: For Allah is full of grace to those who believe.”
Feature 3: Religious fictions promising divine sanction for harmful actions
One other feature of certain religions that could have helped political leaders was religious sanction for crimes that would otherwise not receive social sanction. There are examples of horrific massacres (justified through the premise of permission from the divine).
In the Christian and Jewish traditions is the story of a Jewish prophet by the name of Moses requesting the Jews not to spare anyone from a community of people called the Midianites (that had attempted to involve the Jews in their religious practices) after they had been defeated. Moses says: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (Bible, Numbers 31:17-18).
Muhammad is also reported to have participated in a massacre of a Jewish tribe (the Banu Qurayza) living in Medina after the successful defense of Medina by his army. Ibn Ishaq, a Muslim historian writes: “Then they surrendered, and the Apostle confined them in Medina in the quarter of d. al-Harith, a woman of B. al-Najjar. Then the Apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah Huyayy b. Akhtab and Ka`b b. Asad their chief. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900.” (After that, the Jewish women and children were divided up among the Muslims that had participated in the siege, and Muhammad himself selected one of the women, Rayhana, for himself).
In the Indian epic, The Mahabharata, the deity Krishna repeatedly sanctions the killing through treachery of his enemies, ensuring the victory of the political leaders he is aligned with, though in the process violating all the rules of war and justice.
In all these cases, a religion enabled a political force to breach ethical norms and overcome natural human tendencies to forgiveness and compassion in its pursuit of political benefits – such as the complete elimination of an enemy, control over their lands and resources, and sex slaves as rewards for soldiers (in the Jewish and Muslim stories), and the winning of a kingdom through dishonest means (in the Hindu story).
These are not just fictions from a distant past. The same fictions permit organizations like ISIS to act in an extremely inhumane manner to the present day.
Feature 4: Exclusion of other religious/political groups
Feature 4 is the most troubling of all. It appears that extreme religious views benefit a politicalsymbiote more than moderate religious views.
That’s because more inclusive views do not create political projects capable of emotionally impelling a large mass of people to support to a political symbiote.
So, for example, more inclusive religious fictions would not generate the conflict required for expansion of a religious system at the cost of other religious systems.
Less inclusive religious fictions could, on the other hand, drive a large number of people to join a political project, leading the group participating in the project to dominance over more inclusive groups.
An example can be seen in the case of the house of Saud. Ibn Saud was the first king and founder of the third Saudi Arab kingdom (modern Saudi Arabia).
He positioned himself as the promoter of the teachings of a cleric – Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab – who rejected the veneration of Muslim saints and their tombs.
Ibn Saud’s opponents in the Rashidi tribe of Arabia, who held a less strict view of Islam, would not have had any quarrel with Ibn Saud’s followers, and so would not have had a cause to use to muster large numbers of warriors to make war on Ibn Saud.
On the other hand, since Ibn Saud’s followers could be and were roused to righteous anger against the Rashidi tribe’s “decadent” religious views, making it possible to muster them in large numbers for the political project of the Saudi royal family.
Subsequent events have shown that more and more extreme religious fictions have been invented by political forces (the Taliban and then ISIS) to successfully displace more tolerant religious fictions in their areas of influence.
In India too, a similar process can be observed in Islam in Kashmir and in Hinduism mainly in North India.
In the case of Hinduism, one extremist religious fiction is the belief in the inadmissibility of cow slaughter (and older and even more damaging fiction that’s dusted and rolled out at every election is the belief that Ram’s birthplace lay right under a mosque).
Any group of Hindus that believes that it is up to individuals to decide if they should or should not consume a meat product such as beef might would have no quarrel with people who consumed beef.
On the other hand, a group who believed that the killing of a cow constituted a religious slight to Hindus would be able to motivate opposition to those who consumed beef. If a political symbiote identified such a conflict-generating fiction and aligned their political project to it, they could then be propelled to power through it.
Let’s take another example, this time to do with Christianity.
Let’s say there is one group of Christians that believes that the most important religious fictions in the Bible happened to be the injunction to love others and to turn the other cheek to an assailant. Such a group would be able to coexist peacefully with people of other religious persuasions.
However if a group believed that the most important religious fictions in the Bible were the Christ-is-necessary-for-the-afterlife-insurance-to-work fiction (“no one comes to the Father but through the Son”), the command to propagate the religion (“go ye to all the world and preach my gospel to every people”) or even the monotheistic fiction (“there is no one like you, Lord, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears”) would find it easier to generate conflict with people around the world possessed of different viewpoints from theirs. The engendered conflict could be exploited by a political symbiote seeking a political project.
So, this imbalance of political utility in favour of extremism is bound to give rise to a tendency in all religions to slide in the direction of more extreme views.
I suspect such a shift being involved in the rise of ISIS (through its symbiotic relationship with Salafism in the middle east).
I suspect such a shift having helped the rise of the fortunes of the BJP (through its symbiotic relationship with right-wing Hinduism).
I suspect such a shift in the rise of Trump (his symbiotic relationship being with white Christian conservatives).
Feature 5: Religious Political Projects
Many religions provide their own political projects.
Judaism is clearly associated with the political project of occupation of a portion of the land of Israel/Palestine.
Islam has concepts such as that of the Dar ul Islam and Dar al Harb which create a political project of domination of political entities with the goal of spreading the teachings of Islam.
B) Barriers to Exit
So far, I have talked about the ways in which religions acquire promoters. Religions also deploy a number of methods to erect barriers to keep promoters from leaving a religion.
Here are some of the barriers used:
1. Network Effect Barriers
As I have described above, once organized religions reach a certain size, their resources and the number of promoters invested in them allow them to maintain a higher rate of acquisition compared to a smaller religious organization. This forms a kind of barrier to promoters leaving, in that either social opprobrium (from the majority of the people around being promoters of the larger religion) or the fact that they are more likely to encounter promoters from the larger religion leaves them more likely to remain with the larger religion.
2. Consistency Bias Barriers
Humans are prone to consistency bias. They do not like to be seen as fickle. So once someone asserts a belief (to themselves or to someone else) they are bound to find it very difficult to change their mind about it.
Religions from the middle-east generally use this to their advantage, by prescribing periodic meetings of promoters where the promoters affirm their adherence to the fictions of a religion.
Christianity has its ‘creed’. Islam has the ‘shahada’. Judaism has the ‘shmah’. In Christianity and Judaism, the frequency of affirmation of the creed is weekly. In Islam, the frequency is (for the extremely religious) five times a day.
When a person recites an absolute assertion such as the creed, shmah or the shahada before a large number of witnesses, it becomes difficult for the person to allow themselves to be seen to be changing their minds about it.
I doubt Hinduism has an equivalent, and the closest I could see right-wing Hinduism come to it is with cries such as “Jai Shri Ram” and weekly meetings in “shakas” which might help erect barriers to exit using consistency bias.
3. Legal / Penal Barriers
Islamic law in many jurisdictions prescribes the penalty of death for the “crime” of leaving the religion.
Can we measure the degree of extremism of a dominant group’s religious fictions? It appears that while a direct measure might not be easy to come up with, we might be able to find proxy measures for the same.
A proxy for the extremism of religious fictions might be the number (as a fraction of the population) of members of minority religions who succeed in living in any area.
As the favoured religious fictions of a dominant religion become more extreme, they should lead (by the mechanisms described above) to the elimination of more people of other religions from those areas.
So, in Gujarat, the reduction of the number of people professing Islam and other religions in Hindu-dominated localities of Ahmedabad might serve as a measure of the increase in extremism of those areas.
Similarly, in parts of Kashmir where the majority religion is Islam, and in Muslim majority areas of countries such as Pakistan or Bangladesh, the populations of non-Muslim minorities remaining might provide a proxy for the degree of extremism in the flavour of Islam in general use.
A proxy for the strength of the barriers to exit might be the rate of people giving up that religion in mixed-religion marriages in which both spouses decide to become promoters of one and the same religion.
I have argued above that in order to displace established organized religions, it becomes necessary for religions to propagate themselves through symbiotic relationships with amenable political players. A pressure to move in the direction of more extreme (less inclusive) views results from the need to provide political symbiotes with political projects that can result in large-scale mobilisation.
In other words, by the principles of natural selection, religions are forced to morph into more virulent / harmful / intolerant forms.
About the author
Cohan Sujay Carlos is a researcher at Aiaioo Labs with a keen interest in history, economics and artificial intelligence.
Here are a few more lines from Kabir’s inverted verse:
A tree stands without roots
A tree bears fruit without flowers
Someone dances without feet
Someone plays music without hands
Someone sings without a tongue
Water catches fire
Someone sees with blind eyes
A cow eats a lion
A deer eats a cheetah
A crow pounces on a falcon
A quail pounces on a hawk
A mouse eats a cat
A dog eats a jackal
A frog eats snakes
What’s interesting about all of these is that they’re examples of entity-relationships that are false.
Let me first explain what entities and relationships are.
Entities are the real or conceptual objects that we perceive as existing in the world we live in. They are usually described using a noun phrase and qualified using an adjective.
Relationships are the functions that apply to an ordered list of entities and return a true or false value.
For example, if you take the sentence “The hunter hunts the fox,” there are two entities (1. the hunter, 2. the fox). The relationship is “hunts”, it returns true for the two entities presented in that order.
The relationship “hunts” would return false if the entities were inverted (as in 1. the fox and 2. the hunter … as in the sentence “The fox hunts the hunter”).
In fact it is entities and relationships such as these that it was speculated would some day make up the semantic web.
Most of Kabir’s inverted verse seems to be based on examples of false entity relationships of dual arity (involving two entities), and that often, there is a violation of entity order which causes the entity function to return the value false.
In the “cow was milked” song, the relationship that is violated is the temporal relationship: “takes place before”.
In the “ant’s wedding” song, the relationship that is violated is that of capability: “can do”.
In the rest of the examples, relationships like “eats”, “hunts”, “plays”, “dances”, “bears fruit”, etc., are violated.
In Osho’s “The Revolution”, he talks about Kabir’s interest in and distrust of language, quoting the poet as saying:
I HAVE BEEN THINKING OF THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WATER
AND THE WAVES ON IT. RISING,
WATER’S STILL WATER, FALLING BACK,
IT IS WATER. WILL YOU GIVE ME A HINT
HOW TO TELL THEM APART?
BECAUSE SOMEONE HAS MADE UP THE WORD ‘WAVE’,
DO I HAVE TO DISTINGUISH IT FROM ‘WATER’?
And Osho concludes with:
Kabir is not interested in giving you any answers — because he knows perfectly well there is no answer. The game of question and answers is just a game — not that Kabir was not answering his disciples’ questions; he was answering, but answering playfully. That quality you have to remember. He is not a serious man; no wise man can ever be serious. Seriousness is part of ignorance, seriousness is a shadow of the ego. The wise is always non-serious. There can be no serious answers to questions, not at least with Kabir — because he does not believe that there is any meaning in life, and he does not believe that you have to stand aloof from life to observe and to find the meaning. He believes in participation. He does not want you to become a spectator, a speculator, a philosopher.
This genre of verse seems to have been a tradition in folk religious movements in North India. In “The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense” by Michael Heyman, Sumanya Satpathy and Anushka Ravishankar, they talk about Namdev, a 13th century saint-poet as having authored such verses as well.
There is an interesting unanswered question that humanity still hasn’t managed to put to rest, and it is:
“What is consciousness?”
Is human consciousness magical or mechanical?
Is there some magical thing called a soul in all animals that makes us who we are, drives our actions and makes us conscious of the world around us?
Various religious traditions have different explanations for consciousness.
Semitic traditions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – don’t talk much about consciousness but they have an implicit position on the subject. On the other hand, Hindu philosophical traditions talk explicitly about it, and the following are some of the more well-known philosophical positions:
a) Advaita – the consciousness of creatures on earth is essentially the same as that of the divine.
b) Dvaita – there are two kinds of consciousness – that of earthly creatures and that of the divine.
c) Vishishtadvaita – there are two kinds of consciousness – earthly and divine – and the former can become one with the latter.
So, Hindu philosophies take one of the following positions:
The earthly consciousness is singular from the point of view of the individual. Each person (and in some traditions each animal) is believed to have one.
The view of all Semitic religions, though not explicitly stated, seems to be closer to that of Dvaita philosophy, in that souls are considered distinct entities from the gods (after death, these souls end up in a good place or a bad place for a long time).
I say gods in plural because all Semitic religions seem to believe in the existence of a good divine being and an evil divine being (satan/shaitan/iblees) who is different from the good divine being and not fully subject to him (which is different from Hindu philosophies where the concept of an absolutely bad/evil divine being doesn’t seem to exist).
So, there are two or more (if you count the lesser divine beings called angels, jinns, etc) divine consciousnesses in Judaism, Islam or Christianity.
In Judeo-Christian literature, for example, a text about a man called Job deals with this concept of a bad divine being. The Wikipedia says: “Between Job 1:9–10 and 2:4–5, Satan points out that God has given Job everything that a man could want, so of course Job would be loyal to God; Satan suggests that Job’s faith would collapse if all he has been given (even his health) were to be taken away from him. God therefore gives Satan permission to test Job.” There are also in this belief system conceptions of other divine beings: a holy trinity, a pantheon of angels, etc.
In an account by al-Tabari, a 9th century scholar, the prophet Muhammad is described as having endorsed in verse three dieties of the Kaaba other than Al-Lah at one point (they were called Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat), and later withdrawn the endorsement with the explanation that Satan (who in Islamic theology is believed to have only the power to put ideas into people’s minds) had made him do it. The verses endorsing these other deities (later withdrawn) are referred to in some places as the Satanic Verses (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanic_Verses).
All the above religious belief systems imagine one single soul as resident in each living thing on earth.
However, in the Baha’i faith, it appears that there is a concept of a good and an evil side in each living thing, though possibly not as two consciousnesses. Abdu’l-Bahá is supposed to have said: “This lower nature in man is symbolized as Satan — the evil ego within us, not an evil personality outside.”
In fiction, there have been imaginings of more than one conscious ‘soul’ being resident in a human.
Take the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In it, the character of Jekyll/Hyde is described as having two consciousnesses, one good and one bad – each akin to one of the principal divine beings in Semitic religions.
So, in Jekyll/Hyde’s world, there is a multiplicity of consciousnesses, not just in the divine plane, but also on earth.
So, it appears that we can imagine multiple divine beings in existence, and multiple consciousnesses existing in each of us. We can also imagine a single divine being in existence, and a single conscious soul. We can even imagine the earthly soul/consciousness being the same as the divine soul/consciousness.
The obvious question is: can we imagine the absence of the magical soul since we can imagine the absence of a divine being (atheistic belief systems have existed since times immemorial)?
One of the reasons for postulating the existence of divine beings is that they give us a way of explaining inexplicable phenomena. In antiquity, when humans needed to explain thunder and tides, they imagined thunder gods and sea gods. Later, when they became better able to explain (or at least to be conscious of unchangeable patterns in and to fend against) nature, they began to adopt more abstract conceptions of deities that reflected human consciousness, and where the religious traditions served to provide an explanation for the phenomenon of life, and an ethical framework for reasoning during the period of life.
Once the creation of living things could be explained, and social contracts became things one could reason about, humans seem to have found it easier to surmise that no gods were needed to explain creation, life and ethical values.
Similarly, as we become better able to explain how our minds work, and to understand perception, memory, cognition and language, and also phenomena such as hallucination and mental illnesses, beliefs in magical phenomena such as spirits taking possession of individuals have begun to diminish.
By extrapolation, one might suppose that with time, the belief in an immortal soul will also diminish.
What is likely to replace the concept of a magical soul in all living things?
One of the modern theories of consciousness (according to David Chalmers) seems to be that the mind and the brain are one (see the mind-brain identity theory of 1950 mentioned in http://consc.net/papers/five.pdf).
However, since the brain itself is little understood, we’d merely be explaining something we don’t understand using something that we don’t understand (though we’d be seeing it as something physical).
It seems to me that it might be better to explain our consciousness to ourselves in terms of how computers do the things that we are conscious of doing, since computers are well-understood.
It appears that a definition of consciousness as: “the ability to perceive the world, form a model of the world (including imagined worlds), retain a memory of the perceptions and models, reason independently about those models, and optionally, to act on the perceptions” would be accurate.
So any machine could be considered conscious if it is able to perceive the world, form a model of the world (including imagined worlds), retain a memory of the perceptions and models, reason independently about those models, and optionally act on the perceptions.
A concept such as qualia (see preceding link), which seems so troubling to a representationalist philosopher, would appear trivial to someone well-versed in machine learning, because in machine learning, we already have names for concepts that go beyond these, such as features and models.
So it seems to me at first glance that representationalist theories of consciousness with the addition of concepts from machine learning can adequately explain consciousness in all animals.
Now, it turns out that this alternative hypothesis that there is no soul is not such a recent supposition. It seems to have appeared a long time ago.
In fact, it formed a central tenet of another Indian religion – Buddhism.
In Buddhism the concept of the non-existence of the soul is called Anatta from an (not, without) and attā (soul).
So, it appears that in one Indian philosophical tradition, there is no place for the supernatural consciousness.
Consequences and More Questions
The consequences of reducing the being/soul/consciousness to a mechanical process would be very interesting.
If, we accept the above definition, we would have to think of humans as computers, because if human perceptions of the physical world are nothing more than a mental model of the same, then an electronic model of the world in a computer or a physical model in a mechanical device would also qualify as consciousness of the world.
Can we say that a computer or a mechanical model is conscious of the world in the same way that we are?
If we go with the theory that we have no magical soul, then the only alternative that remains is to accept that if a physical representation of the world can be created of its own volition by a machine that can also reason about it, then the machine is also conscious of the world. In other words, our consciousness would have to be accepted as consisting of nothing more than our memories of the world we perceive and the models we create in our minds, and our ability to think about and reason over them. Anything that can similarly perceive, model and remember things would have to be considered as possessing consciousness, leading to other interesting questions such as: are humans machines, is ‘consciousness’ = ‘life’, can we have consciousness without life, and finally, what is life?
I was really keen to hear what the teachers had to say because I had been extremely apprehensive about whether anyone would be able to type software in Kannada (the standard keyboards available in India are ASCII keyboards labelled with Roman letters).
So, at the beginning of the class, I asked the teachers whether they could type Kannada using ASCII keyboards.
They said that they could. They said that they were used to typing using Nudi or Baraha software (that allows one to type Kannada using a Roman alphabet keyboard).
Since I didn’t have Nudi or Baraha installed, I showed them how Google’s Input Tools worked, and they liked them very much (those with laptops insisted that I install Google Input Tools for them after the lecture).
Apparently, all the teachers could type using a Roman keyboard. They could also all speak some English.
But their level of comfort with English was low when it came to reading and comprehension.
This group of teachers said they found it much easier to read Kannada than English though they typed Kannada on a Latin keyboard.
And they said that for that reason (ease of reading and comprehension), programming tools in the Kannada language would be useful to them.
Acknowledgements: The workshop yesterday was organized by Workbench Projects. There had been a similar workshop at ArtScienceBLR on March 29th. So, anyone wishing to learn to program Arduino boards in Kannada can contact either of these organizations.