Author: K. Tymon Zhou

K. Tymon Zhou is a political science student at Brigham Young University. He enjoys reading and piano in his spare time.

Sam Harris and Scientific Morality Show the Height of Hubris

By Kaihua Zhou | United States

Merriam-Webster defines hubris as “exaggerated pride or self-confidence”. It is the most characteristic crime of intellectuals. In so many cases, they identify an existing issue and propose a baseless solution. Such is the case of Sam Harris, who is a philosopher and neuroscientist. Harris draws attention to a serious issue: religious extremism. However, his solution of atheism and scientific morality clearly shows his hubris, as his reasoning is deeply flawed.

Harris: Hubris and Worldview

Perilous pessimism flavors Harris’s worldview. According to him, the root cause of religious extremism is religion itself:

If you really believe that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly. The stakes of our religious differences are immeasurably higher than those born of mere tribalism, racism, or politics. -Sam Harris

Note that Harris identifies religion solely as a cause of religious extremism. Economics, government structure, and education do not figure into the equation. Such is Harris’ hubris. If religion is inherently dangerous, we would expect religiously diverse communities to be unstable.

Stability and Religion

However, Singapore, the world’s most religiously diverse nation, is quite the opposite. 34% of its inhabitants are Buddhist, 18% are Muslim, and 14% are Christian. Of course, each religion argues that its truths are universal; their faithful followers believe in eternal consequences.

Despite these distinct religious communities, Singapore enjoys a considerable amount of what Harris calls “human flourishing.” Singapore is economically prosperous: its unemployment rate is about 2.2% and its GDP is 527 billion dollars. Surely, religious life is not the only cause of prosperity, or even necessarily one of them. Nevertheless, it presents a powerful counterexample to the claim that religion alone results in intolerance and instability.

Science and Morality

This flawed explanation of religious extremism is evidence of hubris. Though Harris claims to support scientific approaches to essential questions, he ignores clearly proven evidence that goes against his claim.

In fact, his scientific look at morality appears to be further evidence of his own hubris. Harris views moral questions primary in terms of consciousness:

Without a doubt, it is important to know the facts when looking at moral questions. We understand human flourishing in terms of economics (standards of living, the poverty line) and psychology (mental health). These facts can help alleviate suffering. For example, a proper medical diagnosis of PTSD or depression helps someone cope with their illness.

For Morality, Fact is Not Everything

Still, facts do not provide a compelling reason to be concerned with human suffering. Consider two individuals. One is a lifelong religious leader who has taken an active political role. Another is a former mathematics professor.  Which of these individuals is more likely to have a concentrated understanding of facts? If Harris is correct, the professor will be in a better position to answer moral questions, due to his understanding of fact. They will be more attached to reality and more tolerant, by his own logic.

However, the first man in the scenario is the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. The second, on the other hand, is the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Where did Harris’ hypothesis fall short? A former mathematics professor is more likely to be unbound by arbitrary dogma. Despite this, Kaczynski was unconcerned whether or not his victims were flourishing.  He perfectly understood that his actions would result in human suffering.

This is not to suggest that Gyatso’s religious beliefs alone have given him greater moral expertise than Kaczynski. This would ignore the sophistication of human motivation. It does, however, refute Harris’ claim that facts can primarily answer moral questions, as Gyatso is not a murderer. It appears that knowledge does not necessarily allow someone to properly answer moral questions. There must, thus, be another way to determine this. Making such rigid criteria allows for vast errors. Not every man wise in fact can answer questions of opinion.

How To Address Religious Extremism

What can we do to address religious extremism? Rule of law, separation of church and state, and freedom of speech provide a beginning.  The United States and much of the West benefit from these institutions. Thankfully, they are largely free of religious violence. This accomplishment did not require societies to wholly abandon their religious traditions and adopt an empirical moral philosophy.

Yet, this is precisely the solution Harris uncompromisingly prescribes. Such is the height of his hubris, seeing science alone as a savior of humanity. Science cannot hope to resolve issues of morality without cooperating or begrudgingly tolerating religion. To say otherwise is to be blinded by pride.


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Twitter’s Terrible Mob Mentality

By K. Tymon Zhou | United States

A defining characteristic of mobs is their irrationality. Self-awareness is lost in an all-consuming group identity. They readily apply double standards without a second thought. Most mobs are monstrous mayflies, spreading disaster momentary.  Unfortunately, a mob mentality can morph into a corporate culture. Such is the terrible tale of Twitter and Candace Owens.

Candace Owens, a conservative activist at Turning Point USA, had her Twitter account banned for 12 hours. Why? Mimicking The New York Times writer Sarah Jeong, Owens made defamatory statements:

Such statements are shocking.  One can readily understand why Twitter would ban a user who made such statements. However, Owens stated she simply used black where Jeong used white. Her intent was clear: to criticize Jeong. Nevertheless, Twitter, falsely detecting hate, banned her. To their credit, Twitter apologized. This begs the question: why wasn’t Jeong similarly banned? The answer lies in the psychological origins of mob mentality and Twitter’s corporate culture.

Mobs are a catastrophic case of conformity.  In 1951, Solomon Asch, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, conducted a classic experiment on conformity.  During the experiment, students were presented several lines and were asked to compare a line.  Asch separated the students into groups of eight with seven being willing confederates with him. The confederates would give an incorrect answer before the unaware participant. However, thirty-two percent of participants agreed with the incorrect majority.   In mobs, individuals who would otherwise challenge the mob’s flawed assumptions bend to the majority’s will. Asch’s experiment presented only peer influence. In reality, mobs present even greater pressure such as damaging a dissident’s career.   This results in even greater conformity under such conditions.

A corporate culture can similarly create conformity. If a corporate culture is dominated by a particular ideology, individuals from opposing ideologies feel less comfortable sharing their views. Such is the case with several technology companies such as Apple and Facebook. In a survey by the Lincoln Network, sixty-six percent of conservatives and libertarians in these companies shared that they would feel uncomfortable sharing their political views with their colleagues. By way of comparison,  only thirty percent of liberals felt similarly.  This liberal corporate culture can lead to poorly informed decisions such as whether or not to ban an individual from using Twitter. Mo Nohrai, a former Twitter content agent, describes this process:

…if they said this is: ‘Pro-Trump’ I don’t want it because it offends me, this, that. And I say I banned this whole thing, and it goes over here and they are like, ‘Oh you know what? I don’t like it too. You know what? Mo’s right, let’s go, let’s carry on, what’s next?

The response of “Mo’s right, let’s go” echoes Asch’s line experiment. In a corporation dominated by liberal ideology such as Twitter, questioning a ban would likely go unrewarded. It would result in exposing political views, something many conservative and libertarian employees find uncomfortable. Instead, they are placed with a stark choice: conform and succeed or dissent and be isolated. Faced with such a choice, remaining silent seems the preferable option, allowing double standards to emerge.

What can Twitter do to resolve this conflict? Altering a culture presents no easy task. By making the banning process more sophisticated, Twitter can avoid embarrassing mistakes such as Owen’s. By decentralizing this process, Twitter could remove the pressure to conform to a content agent’s position.  In any case, substantial reform is needed to control Twitter’s mob mentality. Through such efforts, Twitter can regain its rationality and become the open forum it needs to be.


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The Perils and Promise of Alien First Contact

By Kaihua Zhou | United States

Encountering extraterrestrial intelligent life would be as terrifying as it would be exhilarating. Bill Nye saw communicating with aliens as an opportunity to gain greater knowledge of the universe. Nye conveys a fundamental optimism that aliens would be willing to share their scientific accomplishments. Such advancements could dramatically improve our quality of life. However, not all scientists share Nye’s hopes. Stephen Hawking, for example, suggested that such an encounter would likely doom humanity:

If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.

Countering Hawking’s warning were his own actions. In 2015, Hawking helped announce Breakthrough Listen. This organization’s goal is to identify alien signals in deep space. This raises an intriguing possibility: if there is intelligent alien life and they recognize that Earth is searching for them, will they contact us? How likely would it be that aliens would dominate Earth after such an encounter? What could humans do to prevent this outcome? Looking at human history, we can see justifications for both Hawking’s fears and Nye’s hopes.

Hawking correctly asserts that first contact would parallel Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.  It would be a monumental encounter of civilizations, with one likely dominating the other. The Spanish explorers in Hispaniola enslaved the native Taino population. After first contact in 1492, the Taino were reduced to a population of 32,000 in 1514.

There are grave dangers in first contact, especially for a technologically inferior group. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel illustrates this through the history of the Spanish conquest of the Inca people. Francisco Pizzaro, leading the Spaniards, quickly overthrew the Incas. Pizzaro first encountered Atahualpa, the Inca Emperor, in 1532. By 1533, the Spanish defeated and executed Atahualpa.

Diamond identifies technology as critical in the European colonist’s success. Europeans armed with steel swords easily defeated the Inca empire, which only had stone knives and bronze weaponry. Similarly, the Europeans’ writing system gave them an advantage. Francisco Pizzaro’s knowledge of the downfall of the Aztecs helped him replicate prior European victories over Native Americans. It is conceivable that alien explorers might have similar advantages over humanity in their technology. With these advantages comes dominance.

However, alien (European) technology and culture occasionally benefits the colonized. While Europeans came to dominate the western hemisphere, Native Americans proved resilient, adapting to their technology and culture. Their experience with firearms and horses demonstrates this. The Iroquois, for example, became masters of firearms. Using their strong trading relationship with Dutch settlers to obtain superior technology, the Iroquois defeated other tribes such as the Huronians in the 1640s.

By establishing a positive trading relationship with aliens, the Iroquois fortified their own geopolitical position.  Later the Iroquois became a key ally of the British Empire against the French. This alliance resulted in the defeat of the French in the French and Indian War.  Beyond weaponry, the Europeans brought the horse. The horse dramatically altered the Plains Native Americans’ way of life. Horses expanded Native American hunting ranges from 50 to 500 miles. It also enabled them to become more materially wealthy, allowing tipis to increase about 10 feet in diameter.  These Native Americans benefited from the Colombian Exchange.

In every exploration, there are risks and rewards. Both Hawking and Nye’s visions are essentially correct. Such is the case of space exploration and the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. However, these risks might be reduced by a new scientific revolution. Such a revolution may yield the alien equivalent of steel swords and writing. This would place humanity in better position to negotiate and peacefully interact with would-be alien overlords. Moreover if humanity is to maintain its sovereignty after first contact , it must similarly adjust to alien technology.  Innovation preserves human life as it faces new challenges. Such it is with the possibility of first contact, a great challenge yet a great opportunity.


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Debunking Dyson

K. Tymon Zhou | United States

How do you justify identity politics? Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown university sociology professor, uses history as a justification. Identity politics, in Dyson’s view, is a defensive response to historical injustices. During a recent interview, he declared that “When I check history, I think white people invented race.”  Dyson attacks his critics as historically ignorant, living in the “United States of Amnesia.” Dyson’s claim has a degree of validity. The United States has been historically dominated by whites. However, Dyson’s claim presents a false narrative that white Americans are uniquely guilty.

The idea that any one demographic group “invented” race is patently absurd.  Sociologists recognize that humans  instinctively gravitate towards group identities. Dyson’s claim that whites invented race as a group identity denies this universal principle. Henry Tajfel, a British social psychologist, demonstrated this in a 1970’s experiment.   Tajfel and his team organized a group of teens into completely arbitrary categories. The teens were told they were divided by artistic preference. Despite this arbitrary categorization, the teens persistently choose to give fake money to members of their own group. Group favoritism is a natural product of group identity, forming in-groups and out-groups. Consequently, cultural and philosophical justifications for racism are only mere outgrowths of this primal instinct. This extends beyond racial identity.  Non-European cultures created hierarchies of in-groups and out-groups within their own societies. West African slavery was centered on kinship, not racial identity. Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs and Mayans enslaved prisoners of war. Such examples demonstrate that group identity resulting in oppression is hardly unique to whites.

Even if one accepts Dyson’s premise that whites invented race, there are gaps in his argument. If race is a white invention, then why did American minorities embrace the concept? In the 1830s, Cherokee Native Americans embraced slavery, asserting that they were equal to whites and superior to African-Americans. As Paul Chatt Smith, a museum curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, explains:

The Five Civilized Tribes were deeply committed to slavery, established their own racialized black codes, immediately reestablished slavery when they arrived in Indian territory, rebuilt their nations with slave labor, crushed slave rebellions, and enthusiastically sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War.

If the idea of Native Americans owning slaves is shocking, African-Americans owning slaves is downright horrifying. Although, the number of African-American slave-holders was minuscule, a number became wealthy through slave labor. William Ellison, a black South Carolina planter, died owning 900 acres and 63 slaves in 1860. Ellison’s story is a perverse corruption of the American dream; he was born into slavery, but seems to have fully embraced the racial hierarchy of antebellum America. Moreover, free African-Americans were willing to fight for the Confederacy. The Louisiana Native Guards was formed by free African Americans.They asserted their loyalty to the southern cause:

  The free colored population [native] of Louisiana … own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land … and they are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana … They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought [to defend New Orleans from the British] in 1814-1815.”

These examples demonstrate that whites were not alone in their racism. It had enshrouded and penetrated all segments of American society. One can make the argument that only a minority of Native Americans or African-Americans owned slaves.  However, the same was true of the American South, with only 25% of Southerners owning slaves. If one forgives the Cherokee and African-American slave-owners, one also must forgive their white peers.

These complex historical circumstances do not diminish the scope of injustice but it demonstrates that history is not a race-centered morality play. In Dyson’s narrative, whites alone are responsible for racial injustice. In reality, whites were acting on a universal group instinct in establishing in-groups and out-groups.  They were not alone in accepting racist dogmas and prejudices. Indeed, Dr. Dyson lives in the United States of Amnesia, not his opponents.


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Obama, Freedom and Identity Politics

By K. Tymon Zhou | South Africa

As identity politics grow more popular to the american left, an unlikely individual may be able to help our racial divisions.

How can societies reconcile multicultural harmony with unity? At times, it seems impossible to achieve both of these noble aims.  The progressive left seeks to prioritize “inclusion” and “diversity”, but creates only a restless frenzy. This frenzy takes the form of identity politics, a corrosive influence in American life.  Recently, an unlikely source challenged this scourge: former president Barrack Obama. On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a speech in Johannesburg, South Africa at the Nelson Mandela Lecture. This speech expressed a fundamental optimism that diversity can exist with unity. Conservatives and libertarians should adopt this approach as they seek to restrain identity politics.

Firstly, Obama acknowledged historic injustices describing the colonialism that was prevalent in Mandela’s youth :

such a view of the world – that certain races, certain nations, certain groups were inherently superior, and that violence and coercion is the primary basis for governance, that the strong necessarily exploit the weak, that wealth is determined primarily by conquest – that view of the world was hardly confined to relations between Europe and Africa, or relations between whites and blacks. Whites were happy to exploit other whites when they could. And by the way, blacks were often willing to exploit other blacks.

It is surprising that Obama refers to oppression within the same racial groups. In the particular narrative, imperialism and oppression are not exclusively European sins. Instead, they are presented as universal. This runs to contrary to liberal identity politics which states that to be an oppressor, all one must do is to simply belong to an “advantaged” group.  Thus, liberal identity politics ignores the oppression that can occur within minority groups ( i.e blacks exploiting other blacks). Such a view is a horrific over-simplification. Moreover, it ignores the situational diversity within “advantaged” groups. This only fuels animosity between groups. Instead of seeing oppression in terms of identity, one must see it in terms of action. Obama’s more nuanced perspective recognizes this.

Secondly, Obama argues that democracy can resolve such injustices:

I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good.

Despite its liberal source, libertarians and conservatives have readily embraced this message. Their primary focus is securing greater freedom and to protect inalienable rights. Such a goal inherently works towards a common good. In a magnificently miraculous manner, freedom created unity.  The same protection that grants Sikhs a right to self-expression grants Christian bakers that same right. In democracies, all groups can pursue these freedoms.

Ironically, Obama’s fellow liberals have forgotten this fundamental truth. They doubt that there is a common good. Consider the contemplation of two Harvard Crimson opinion writers,  Salma Abdelrahman and Nicholas P. Whittaker, devout progressive liberals:

My guiding light in the fight for justice is a vision for a world in which Black liberation does not have to ride on the coattails of white self-interest, a world in which the cries of Black and Brown folk are more than enough to change it…

If our battle against oppression must seek the permission of our masters, then are we not simply running in circles?

To these progressive liberals, the “common good” is a mere rhetorical device designed by the “oppressor”  to prevent progress. There is a certain demented logic to their reasoning. In their view, minorities are surrounded by oppressors. Consequently, there is no “we” between the oppressors and the oppressed. Therefore, the oppressed should not seek a compromise with their overlords, they should simply gain power for themselves.  At its core, this may sound appealing.  It offers an opportunity to create utopia without the hard work of building a democratic consensus.  Perhaps these bold visionaries should abandon the premise of believing in democracy.  There are alternative systems in which a minority can pursue its own goals without compromising with a majority: aristocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships of all stripes obey this principle. To avoid compromises, they brutally suppress freedom. Such is the dark road that toxic identity politics can lead.

Thankfully, such a road is not inevitable. As Obama recognized, there are brighter and more beautiful paths ahead if we embrace the unifying force of freedom. Through freedom, societies can reconcile multicultural harmony with unity.

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