Afghanistan and the Turing Machine

How do societies modernize? One day they realize that their ways have gotten older, and they transform overnight into liberal democracies with equal rights for all.

Not really.

Afghanistan

The US invaded Afghanistan to spread democracy, women’s rights and universal love (there was something about hegemony in the Middle East, but those are just rumors). It rained money and support (and bombs, and missiles, but again those might be rumors) on the Afghans, providing them with a red-carpeted ramp to democracy and prosperity. Music academies were encouraged and funded, women were encouraged to take leadership roles, and there was even a women’s football team!

So what happened?

https://www.prb.org/resources/most-women-in-afghanistan-justify-domestic-violence/

Why wouldn’t Afghanistan appreciate and adopt the awesomeness that America was gifting to them on a silver platter? Why do they stick to their “medieval” practices, and refuse to engage with the changing world?

The brain as a Turing machine

A Turing machine is a computer-like device that “manipulates symbols on a strip of tape”. How does it do that? Imagine that the Turing machine is trying to manipulate the symbol on a particular cell. The machine can exist in any of n states. Depending upon the state it currently is in and the current symbol on the cell, it decides how to manipulate the symbol and which cell to move on to next.

In other words, the state of the Turing machine keeps changing depending on its current state and what symbols it encounters on the tape.

I have recently begun to realize that this is a fantastic description of all kinds of complex networks, whether we’re talking about the brain or society. For example, how our perspective on a certain issue changes depends almost entirely on what our current perspective is, and what we encounter in real life. Imagine that I am an 18th century slave owner in provincial America who is brought up to believe that slaves are essentially animals and hence must be treated like beasts of burden. This is my current state. If I have an encounter which convinces me that slaves are treated unfairly (think of this as the symbol on the strip of tape), I won’t immediately start thinking that slaves are the same race as us and hence should be freed immediately. I will probably be led to this conclusion only after multiple encounters of a similar nature, through which my mental state would change several times before I got ready to fight for my suppressed brethren.

Let us take a more modern example. Most people in the world eat some form of meat. We are brought up to believe that animals are inferior to us and hence we ought to eat them to survive, even Jesus ate meat hence we are justified in doing the same, meat is too delicious to let go off for flimsy reasons, worms and insects die in agriculture too, etc. This is our current state. If we have encounters in which we see sheep and cows getting killed for meat (think of this as a symbol the Turing machine encounters on the strip of tape), we might develop a slight aversion to meat. However, we may still keep on consuming meat. If we have multiple such encounters (we get equally delicious soy alternatives to meat, the environmental impact of meat becomes even more apparent, it is proved beyond reasonable doubt that a vegetarian diet reduces chances of cancer and cardiovascular disease, etc), we may slowly move towards a state of veganism.

Much like a Turing machine, our perspective cannot just jump from the initial state to its final state. It has to go through multiple intermediate states before it reaches its destination.

How is any of this relevant to Afghanistan?

America’s attempts to spread democracy and women’s rights in Afghanistan are misguided because they want Afghans to jump directly from a state of conservatism to a state of western liberalism. We can’t just expect women, who are brought up to believe that it is for their own good that they must be beaten by their husbands, to start discarding these beliefs. They will slowly and painstakingly have to realize that they are the societal and moral equal of their husbands before they can start believing that they should not be beaten. Neither can we expect Afghans to overnight want a secular society with freedom of speech. They have been brought up to believe that their true ruler has to be a divinely appointed Caliph. They have to read world history and realize how misguided this idea has been in the past, before they can accept democracy as a workable alternative.

Poking holes in this model

Let us try and poke some holes in this model to see if this holds up.

Afghanistan was not always a conservative society. Kabul was resplendent with sights like those below in the 60s

Would it be so hard to just hop back to the modernity that Kabul possessed?

Let us draw an analogy to present-day India. It has a quickly ballooning youth population that mostly lives by liberal western ideals, dates freely, and is steeped deep in women’s rights. Does that mean that India has a liberal society?

Societal beliefs can be well represented in the form of a normal curve.

If we imagine “liberal beliefs and lifestyle” to increase from left to right, in every society we have a small number of people who are either very conservative or very liberal. Both the Afghanistan of the 60s and the India of today have a small number of liberals in the cities, and a small number of ultra-conservatives outside of urban centers. However, most people lie in the middle. A typical man in India may believe that women should not work but take care of the household instead, but may refrain from regular beatings. Hence, it would be erroneous to say that the Afghanistan of the 60s or the India of today are liberal. They just had (have) liberal subpopulations.

What the Taliban has done is that is has quashed those liberal subpopulations in Afghanistan. Hence, although it may be unpopular amongst educated Afghans with liberal ideas, it is mostly aligned with current Afghan values and beliefs.

I think it may be even more complicated than that. Regardless of the state of liberalism in the country, Afghans may believe that the Taliban represents the “purest values of Islam”. Hence, Taliban may be representative of religious perfection. This is an aspect of societal acceptance that I got from reading a Pakistani’s take on Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan. Taliban may be the embodiment of religious aspiration in Afghanistan.

So how does all of this fit with my model of society and perspective as a Turing machine? Well, although liberal pockets may exist in the Afghan society, most of the population is still in a conservative state. In order to create lasting change in Afghanistan, it will not do to just create some liberal pockets through American propaganda. The mean of the normal curve will have to be shifted. This can only be done like one changes the state of a Turing machine: slowly, and through lots of intermediate stages.

A liberal Afghanistan won’t be built in a day.

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Graduate student

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