Unarmed Prophets Stuck in a Chinese Room

I received a comped copy of Alone with a Jihadist through Speakeasy.

Aaron Taylor spent seven hours arguing with Irish convert to Islam Khalid Kelly as part of a documentary called Holy Wars.   After the debate was over, he was troubled by Kelly’s conflation of religion and the state and endorsement of war as evangelization.  This book lays out his pacifistic theology.

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When I signed up to review this book, I though more of it would be focused on the debate itself, but the confrontation is mostly limited to the first chapter, and in Taylor’s telling, Kelly isn’t particularly responsive to argument.  So the rest of the book is mostly Taylor alone.

I didn’t like it.  To be honest, I found Taylor’s case for pacifism (to which I have sympathy!) to be dense and shallow.  The pages are peppered with scripture quotations (opening to random pages to confirm just now, the unusually large font pages often have 2-4 refernces).  The clustered citations don’t leave much room for exegesis, so the reader has to mostly take Taylor’s word on interpretation.

So, let me leave off a detailed critique and just pull out one strand of the argument that I found interesting.  During their initial argument, Kelly tells Taylor that Christianity is a pale shadow of a religion because it’s not prescriptive enough.  Kelly runs down a list of sins (adultery, blasphemy, etc) that have well defined punishments in his interpretation of Sharia and challenges Taylor to name the equivalent penalties in Christianity.  When Taylor falters, Kelly concludes:

“You still haven’t described how you would implement the Bible as a way of life or in government.  I’ll be honest with you.  I’m gonna pin you down.  I don’t think you can… This is Islamic Sharia. It’s comprehensive.”

Kelly seemed to be describing religion as a big moral and legal lookup table, the more detailed the better, and I was reminded of this quote from Overheard at Yale Div School, “Any faith tradition worth its salt will tell you what to do with your food, your time, your genitals, and your money.  Otherwise it’s not a real religion.”  But what I was also reminded of was the Chinese Room thought experiment.  Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes it:

[S]uppose that there is a program that gives a computer the ability to carry on an intelligent conversation in written Chinese. If the program is given to someone who speaks only English to execute the instructions of the program by hand, then in theory, the English speaker would also be able to carry on a conversation in written Chinese. However, the English speaker would not be able to understand the conversation. Similarly, Searle concludes, a computer executing the program would not understand the conversation either.

In the dialogue, Kelly seems to be clinging to the comfort of a comprehensive rule-based system for laws or morals.  Kelly doesn’t need to be confused, he can just consult his moral law program and implement the correct answer.  To me, he sounds like the person in the Chinese room.

We tend to value human judges for the sake of the person judged.  A human can take into account context that might not have an input field in your sentencing program.  But a good system of law seems like it would be good for the judge as well.  Figuring out how to properly apply a good system of law would help the judge how to exercise and develop her virtues.

The certainty and precision that Kelly doesn’t leave room for the development of human judgement and character.  It’s the difference between having a list of formulas for your stat exam and understanding the theory well enough to be able to rederive them if needed.  Ultimately, we’re trying to grow our moral faculties so that we are the hypothetical lookup table, and we don’t need to consult an external one.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

    Unfortunately, plenty of people in plenty of religions treat their religion as if it’s supposed to be a comprehensive system of answers and commands.

  • joannemcportland

    Interesting that a man named Kelly wouldn’t be aware of Christianity’s attempt to codify sin and punishment, the medieval Irish penitentials. Laundry lists just don’t seem to work for us, at least not as a framework for faith.

  • Gordon

    And that is why I don’t believe in Divine Command Morality.

  • Ted Seeber

    I find a codified morality like the Catechism of the Catholic Church to be comforting- but ideals rarely fit the real world, and that’s why I’m NOT for Sharia Law. Forgiveness should *always* be an option, even for the worst sinner.

  • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    I found Taylor’s case for pacifism (to which I have sympathy!) to be dense and shallow. The pages are peppered with scripture quotations (opening to random pages to confirm just now, the unusually large font pages often have 2-4 refernces). The clustered citations don’t leave much room for exegesis, so the reader has to mostly take Taylor’s word on interpretation.

    Oh look, it’s from a vanity publisher — surprise, surprise. If there’s one reason for an author who wants to be taken seriously not to opt for avanity publisher, it’s that you won’t get a professional editor, proofreader, layout artist, typesetter, etc. The most cursory glance at a book will almost always tell you that the author has chosen the hard-copy version of a blog to get their message out.

    Of course there is a long and honorable history of this: the broadside dates back to Renaissance Italy and the birth of the printing press, when anyone willing to cough up the lira could get whatever they want in print. But they were more sensational than credible then, and the same applies today.

  • http://bensix.wordpress.com BenSix

    I came across a book titled “The Merits of Islam”, by a man who feels that we should have jihad waged against us, and it consisted of a massive list of things Islam prohibits, running from sodomy and suicide to “urinating into stagnant water”, “eat[ing] from the centre of a dish” and “haste in walking”, before wondering how anyone, considering all of these rules, could resist becoming a Muslim. You’re right that a comprehensive system of judgements might render the faith appealing but I also wonder if adherents enjoy the sense of piety they earn from acts of even basic hygiene and politeness.

  • Alex Godofsky

    I don’t agree with this critique at all. Note that even in societies not based on Islam (or similar religions), we do have a Chinese Room-like lookup table (implemented by an army of highly paid professionals): the law. If morality follows from your religion and the law follows from morality, then you should be able to deduce the ideal laws from your religion.

    Sure, the laws you deduce may be somewhat contingent, but your religion still shouldn’t permit the degree of disagreement we have in America.

    • leahlibresco

      What should I do is a more straightforward question than what should the State do to coerce me to do it. Especially with regard to positive duties.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’ve yet to see a system of law that truly derives from morality. Most systems of law are about protecting the rich minority and their property from the majority rabble.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      Deriving law from morality would be nightmarish. They are separate functions, and should be. How would you police truth-telling or kindness?
      The law’s purpose is to produce a society–through constraints–which allows its members to live productively, ethically, and safely. It does not enforce morality. (Added to this is the problem that we would then all have to agree upon a morality, which will not happen. Agreeing on what is required to produce a safe society is somewhat more likely to happen, though apparently not very likely.)

  • Noe

    There’s a similar comfort need I’ve seen in somewhat-formed Christians who go for Orthodox Judaism. A need for not simply rules to their lives, but codified rules, laid out – and no confusing Jesus (who befuddled even Jesus’ family and apostles; how the usually well-read gerim miss this, I never understood). When they leave the internet and books for an actual community and see the rules played out (selectively, if they’re in college or a “singles” scene), they often grasp onto the nifty, almost post-modern legal fictions (prizbul, etc), that turn Modern Orthodox halacha into a language game/Crossfit gym, where orthopraxy and textual precedent takes the place of appeals to holism. But when asked “Is it true?” by people who live/think/believe/breath the life, the response was generally, “It’s my chosen spiritual path”, stepping away from the concrete ‘rules’ reasoning they offered as the reason for pursuing it.

    • Noe

      Many converts to Orthodoxy came from (at their most religious), protestant, Holy Tradition-free cosmologies and post-Vatican II, ethnically-block-busted “universal” Catholicisms. There was many others who seemed to see Judaism as a therapeutic, 613-Step Program for “People Experiencing the Modern Condition’ Anonymous”.

  • deiseach

    At first, I thought the Irish Muslim he was talking about was this guy, but no – it’s a different Dubliner he means.

    Yes, as someone who is much too emphatic on the “following the rules” aspect of my religion, a comprehensive structure is comforting and very supportive, and it also permits you to feel vindicated and (self)righteous when pointing out the specks in others’ eyes.

    Then you get hit with things like “You are not God, and He decides for Himself who is and is not saved” which knocks the stool out from under you.

    I’m pretty sure Islam must, the same way Judaism has and Catholicism also (in moral theology) come up with exceptions and ways to work around the proscriptions. So it’s a sin to (fill in the blank) yet I have done this either inadvertently or without knowing it was a sin – am I a sinner and condemned? Moral theology, particularly in the work of the spiritual director and the confessor, works out all the tricky bits in real, messy human life. That’s why it is associated with casuistry, which most of you will have recognised as gaining a bad name through being associated with Jesuits.

  • R.C.

    The objective in moral living is not to be 100% obedient to the right look-up table.

    The objective in moral living is to become an intrinsically saintly person; which is to say, a person who organically and as a part of who they are will habitually gravitate towards acting in a fashion which, were you to check it, would turn out to be 100% obedient to the right look-up table, but in which the person themselves merely acted naturally and never even needed to consult the look-up-table.

    So the look-up-table by itself fails. It can be used for catechesis and for success-measuring purposes, but the goodness of the person, not their robotic attachment to a limited set of moral commands, is the goal.

    And there is another thing that ought to be understood here: The proper use of force.

    In real morality, the exercise of force against another human being is something that requires a high threshold of justification. A thing can be immoral — entirely immoral, really extremely immoral — yet still not be of a category of evil which human beings have just authority to oppose through the use of force. If a human being uses force against another without justification, even in an attempt to oppose an evil, then that human being has himself committed an evil act.

    This is why, incidentally, an utter pacifist is always required to be an utter anarchist. The two go together: He who does not believe in using force against his fellow men to oppose any evils likewise cannot (without contradiction) believe in banding together with his fellow men to form and subsidize a government (with a police force) to exercise force on their behalf.

    Now Christianity is not a pacifist religion. It is, however, a religion which places a very high threshold for achieving moral justification for the use of force. It follows that there are many categories of evil which Christianity opposes, but which it does not oppose forcibly.

    It seems to me that Islam either has a much lower threshold, or no threshold; that it either holds that all evil may be justly opposed forcibly, or that the category of evils which cannot be justly opposed forcibly is extremely small.

    Now, one difficulty with this approach is that it demonstrates ignorance of the end-goal of morality which I mentioned at the top of this post; namely, that people should become good people rather than that people should be merely forced to obey good laws which are external to them. The moral law ought to be in the heart, not at the end of someone else’s gun, for righteousness to be true righteousness.

    To put the same thing another way: Were Sharia to be executed perfectly in a given society, there would then be no reliable evidence — no assurance at all! — that a single righteous person existed in that society.

    Now that is an exaggeration, an oversimplification. But here is what I mean: Suppose for a moment that the religious police of Saudi Arabia (yes, those crumballs who crowded girls back into a burning school, those recreants) really were following the 100% correct moral code. And suppose for a moment that they could enforce it perfectly; that is, perfectly impose force so as to find every person about to violate that code and require them at gunpoint to obey it instead; or at least infallibly catch every offender within a couple of minutes after the offense and immediately impose sentence.

    In that case, there might be 100% obedience to the code, but there would, in all likelihood, be 90% unrighteousness. For 90% of the people would not be thinking about righteousness at all when obeying righteously; the would be thinking about avoiding getting shot/decapitated/whatever. They would certainly not be acting out a natural righteousness which bubbled over from the moral wealth of their souls, overflowing into their outward actions. If anything, they would be frequently committing the sin of craven cowardice: Constantly acting in a given way, not because they’d given any thought to whether it was right or wrong, but solely in order to avoid death or dismemberment.

    The true test would come if all the Sharia-Enforcement Police suddenly vanished one day, and everyone were suddenly left to choose whether they would obey the moral code without fear of any consequences other than those which might arise naturally out of doing an immoral act. THAT is when we’d find out if there were any righteous people living in the society of Sharia: Assuming for the sake of argument that the Sharia code is really correct, the only 100% moral people would be the people whose behavior was 100% unchanged when 100% perfect enforcement of Sharia suddenly changed to 0% enforcement.

    I don’t see much awareness of that particular detail in the Islam-as-legal-code mindset.


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