Sunday, September 24, 2006

Read All About It

A few links of note: Pope says West puts too much faith in science. My favourite quote, from the Old-Man-In-A-Dress himself:
At the morning Mass, Benedict said Western societies had become "hard of hearing" about God, saying: "There are too many other frequencies in our ears. What is said about God strikes us as pre- scientific, no longer suited for our age."
Now I see why he was voted 'Most Perceptive Man in Europe' 3 years running! A load of tent-dwelling, drug-smoking shepherds with a penchant for massacring outsiders throw together some outlandish, self-contradictory fables and hand them down through dozens of generations to be rewritten and 'improved' upon. And the final product is a mish-mash of rock-worshiping, child-killing, women-abusing, reptile-talking crap. And people think this is no longer suited to our more enlightened age! Who'd have thought it? But there's more! The Holy Transvestite continues:
He contrasted this to a faith he still found in developing countries, where 70 percent of the world's Catholics now live. "People in Africa and Asia admire our scientific and technical prowess, but at the same time they are frightened by a form of rationality which totally excludes God from man's vision, as if this were the highest form of reason," he said.
No. Of course we all know that the highest form of reason is faith (defined in my dictionary as ' belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence'. That's right, your Senileness, the highest form of reason is reason's direct opposite! Such wisdom.. But you are right of course to stick to the uneducated, desperate masses in less wealthy nations - they're much easier to indoctrinate. So by all means go on telling them that condoms spread AIDS and that it's their duty to keep churning out children, even if that means such children living short, horrible lives before dying of famine or disease. Tell 'em that it doesn't matter that they live squalid, poverty-filled lives, just so long as they believe the God's Honest Truth (1380'th version, sub-revision III). Your morality is so inspiring. Next up, a couple of articles to get you thinking: Is Islam itself the enemy? Sam Harris aims to convince you. And if you think torture is justified, even on it's own terms, maybe you should think again. Finally, Richard Dawkins has a new book out on the evil that belief in God causes, called The God Delusion. Here is an excerpt for your enjoyment. I'll reproduce the best bit here for you though- a letter to Albert Einstein, written after Einstein had rejected the idea of a personal God:
We respect your learning, Dr Einstein; but there is one thing you do not seem to have learned: that God is a spirit and cannot be found through the telescope or microscope, no more than human thought or emotion can be found by analyzing the brain. As everyone knows, religion is based on Faith, not knowledge. Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time. But I never told anyone of my spiritual aberrations for two reasons: (1) I feared that I might, by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being; (2) because I agree with the writer who said, "There is a mean streak in anyone who will destroy another's faith." ... I hope, Dr Einstein, that you were misquoted and that you will yet say something more pleasing to the vast number of the American people who delight to do you honor.
Right, because you wouldn't want to even suggest the possibility that God may not exist to anyone, because if you do you run the risk of 'damaging the life and hopes of some fellow being'! Mean old Mr. Einstein - these people were hoping to continue to exist in a vaguely defined non-physical form after their death, perhaps as some kind of floaty hovering thing, but now you've gone and ruined it! Flimsy things, these religious beliefs.. I think Dawkins probably gets more criticism from his own side for his opinions on religion than he does from the religious fundamentalists themselves, most of which boils down to arguments like: 'For goodness sake be a bit nicer. Criticising religion just isn't done, you know. Besides, if we keep quiet maybe they will go away and not blow us all up..' Needless to say, men of the calibre of Dawkins and myself aren't buying into such namby-pamby, wishy-washy, mainstream-liberal dirge as that! Not bloody likely, as a Cockney might say. No, we have realised that religion needs to be tackled head on in a robust and self-confident manner, particularly in those places where it's roots are deepest. Take the United States, for instance. Look around you - do you see a nation receptive to the 'gentle, diffident & apologetic' school of debate? Clearly not; it should be obvious after all that has happened over the last few years that allowing yourself to be walked all over is no way to win the 'hearts and minds' of the American public - if you don't believe me just go and ask Gore and Kerry. Having said that, it shouldn't need to be pointed out that Dawkins hardly qualifies as the kind of empty-headed, shouty demagogue that all too frequently infest our media (neither am I advocating that he should be; there is a big difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness.). He's just an intellectual who also stands his ground; he rarely makes unwarranted compromises on important matters such as those he addresses in his book. He isn't nasty or mean-spirited; he just doesn't give religion the respect that it falsely believes it deserves by default. I applaud him for this and only wish that there were more on our side with such backbone. If more of us acted like Dawkins, whilst we may or may not be more successful at deconverting the masses, we would in either case at least be able to retain a modicum of self-respect. Incidentally, and in case anyone thinks the title of Dawkin's book is a little harsh, this is taken from the Wikipedia entry for 'delusion':
A delusion is commonly defined as a fixed false belief and is used in everyday language to describe a belief that is either false, fanciful or derived from deception. In psychiatry, the definition is necessarily more precise and implies that the belief is pathological (the result of an illness or illness process). …… Psychiatric definition Although non-specific concepts of madness have been around for several thousand years, the psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers was the first to define the three main criteria for a belief to be considered delusional in his book General Psychopathology. These criteria are: * certainty (held with absolute conviction) * incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary) * impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)
I couldn't think of a more accurate way of describing belief in God.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Neither Rhyme Nor Reason

From those opinion poll results I linked to in an earlier post, people have asked me why evolution gets less acceptance amongst the general public than global warming, when evolution is by far the better established of the two (this does not imply that global warming is not well established, of course. It is, but evolution is just even more certain). I think that it is simply a matter of ideology. It is economic conservatives (i.e libertarians) that tend to have trouble accepting global warming, whereas it is social conservatives whose core ideology is challenged by evolution. In the United States, a much larger fraction of the population fit into the social conservative category than fit into the libertarian category. Q.E.D. In neither case do I think that most of the people have come to any conclusions (pro or con) after examining the available evidence; it is more likely to be the case that by accepting global warming as well established and potentially catastrophic, libertarians would have their beloved free-markets-at-all-costs quasi-religion challenged, since by accepting human-induced global warming, the implication is that intervention in the more harmful aspects of our economic activity is appropriate and justified. Of course, recently we have seen a lot of such people move into the position of accepting human-induced global warming, but claiming that the best thing we can do is to keep things going as they are, whilst hoping for a technological solution. This gives them an 'out', as they can accept global warming without acknowledging the need to take any specific action. In the case of evolution, it is the fundamentalist, born-again, protestant bible-thumpers who make up the bulk of those threatened. Libertarians have no problems with evolution, in fact many of them like to draw parallels between evolution and 'free' markets (as we have seen in an earlier post). In contrast, all the creation stories of the Bible (and elsewhere) are shown as nonsense, not just by the fact of evolution, but simply the fact of Earths' 4.5 billion year age. As we saw in my previous post, even supposedly open-minded students are quite willing to dismiss any conflicting evidence out of hand if such evidence contradicts the words in their holy books written long ago by ignorant nomadic tribesmen. So far from being a situation where people are thoroughly examining the available evidence and finding that in favour of evolution more suspect than that in favour of human-induced global warming, I think it is simply the case that evolution goes against more peoples' core beliefs than does climate change.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Candle Flickers

The Guardian has an excellent opinion piece on the latest depressing-but-unsurprising news that almost 1/3 of British university students are creationists (check out the quotes in that article. And these are university students!). The article ties this retreat from reason with the rise of fundamentalism that the globe is currently suffering the effects of, in what the author aptly describes as the 'resurgence of the fairy-tales that once served mankind's intellectual infancy'. It's a pity, then, that such lucid thought is pretty much overwhelmed on the pages of The Guardian these days with endless apology-pieces for fundamentalist religion (usually Islamic, but also some Christian and Jewish) and postmodernist relativism (with their attendant 'ways of knowing' and 'points of view'). And for an hilarious example of the latter, don't miss 'Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism', which asserts that the evidence-based medical establishment is 'fascistic' in it's 'territorialisation' of medicine with it's 'post-positivist regime of truth'. What a hoot! Those fascists have ruthlessly doubled life expectancy at birth over the last century, and still they show no signs of stopping. Quick, somebody fetch my Shaman; I need a little concoction to steady my nerves..

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Veggie Delite®

I am a vegetarian. But I am far from being a sandal-wearing, incence-burning, spliff-rolling hippie. 'How is such a thing possible?', you may ask. Allow me to elaborate. There are many possible reasons given for being a vegetarian, among which the following are the most common: 1] It's healthier; 2] It's wrong to kill animals; 3] It's wrong to intensively farm animals; 4] It is an inefficient use of resources to eat meat; Of these, I consider numbers 3 & 4 to be by far the most important, whereas numbers 1 & 2 I deem to be trivial. 1] It's healthier This can be considered in a couple of different senses. Firstly, I would disagree that by eliminating meat from your diet, you automatically eat healthier stuff; it's quite easy to down pizza, ice cream and beer as a vegetarian, I assure you. So there is a huge overlap on the vegetarian/carnivore and healthy/unhealthy scale, so much so that I will rule out this alleged benefit of vegetarianism for the remainder of this post. In the other sense, there are certainly health concerns regarding the hormones, antibiotics, etc. that are administered to animals during the meat farming process; not so much from any directly damaging effects, but rather from the more subtle effects such pre-emptive medicating of animals has (such as the increased likelihood of epidemics). This sense of the health question, however, is more of a side effect of number 3, which I deal with below. 2] It's wrong to kill animals I disagree that it is wrong to kill animals. It is also wrong to anthropomorphize them (take note, Disney fans!). Rather, what I have a moral problem with is any human-induced suffering that animals may go through during their lives. The actual killing of the animal, as long as it is swift and painless, is of no concern to me. This is because, as I said, animals are not people. Whilst we are discovering more and more evidence that suggests that animals are not merely mindless automata, there is none (yet) to suggest that they have anything like the kind of personal awareness that humans have. So, it is agreed that they can suffer (see below) but not that they have any kind of philosophical understanding of, or fear of, death (neither that they have loving families who have a non-survival related interest in their lives). 3] It's wrong to intensively farm animals Which brings us on to the question of modern intensive farming methods. As established, whilst I don't think it is ethically problematic to kill animals per se, I certainly do think that the conditions in which animals are forced to live in modern industrial meat production are indeed terrible, and that this is an ethical concern. Now I personally, as a comparitively rich westerner, do not need to eat meat. Obviously, for someone who is for example a hunter-gatherer in South America, the situation is totally different, and I am not trying to claim any kind of unyielding, universal rule here. We are dealing with shades of grey; trying to determine which side the balance favours. Most meat-eaters don't give a second thought to just exactly what the conditions animals are forced to endure are, and this is a very natural, self-serving attitude (in the same way that it is far easier to simply deny the existence of global warming, rather than admit your share of the responsibility for it but say you just don't care because you're not likely to suffer much of the consequences). I think that we are morally impelled think about such things, however. 4] It is an inefficient use of resources to eat meat The production of meat uses far more resources - land, energy, water, etc - than does the production of non-meat products. Vast areas of rainforest are clear-cut to provide the necessary land. Being higher up the food chain means that it takes many units of grain to produce each unit of meat. The meat industries of most western countries are also heavily subsidised, another waste factor. So, in conclusion, whist not for the reasons many people assume vegerarians will give to justify their aversion to eating meat, I do think there are important ethical problems with carnivorism, and therefore I make the personal non-sacrifice of abstaining.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Dangerous Ideas

I have recently finished working my way through this years' Edge question - "What is Your Dangerous Idea?". I have mentioned Edge on here before; the annual question is asked of all their contributors (who consist of many leading figures of science & technology, plus a few miscellaneous others). Near the end of the list, in addition to there being a few bizarre (to say the least - thinking rocks, anyone?) entries, there is also this one from Michael Shermer, the editor of the very good Skeptic magazine: Where goods cross frontiers, armies won't. Restated: where economic borders are porous between two nations, political borders become impervious to armies. Data from the new sciences of evolutionary economics, behavioral economics, and neuroeconomics reveals that when people are free to cooperate and trade (such as in game theory protocols) they establish trust that is reinforced through neural pathways that release such bonding hormones as oxytocin. Thus, modern biology reveals that where people are free to cooperate and trade they are less likely to fight and kill those with whom they are cooperating and trading. My dangerous idea is a solution to what I call the “really hard problem”: how best should we live? My answer: A free society, defined as free-market economics and democratic politics — fiscal conservatism and social liberalism — which leads to the greatest liberty for the greatest number. Since humans are, by nature, tribal, the overall goal is to expand the concept of the tribe to include all members of the species into a global free society. Free trade between all peoples is the surest way to reach this goal. People have a hard time accepting free market economics for the same reason they have a hard time accepting evolution: it is counterintuitive. Life looks intelligently designed, so our natural inclination is to infer that there must be an intelligent designer — a God. Similarly, the economy looks designed, so our natural inclination is to infer that we need a designer — a Government. In fact, emergence and complexity theory explains how the principles of self-organization and emergence cause complex systems to arise from simple systems without a top-down designer. Charles Darwin's natural selection is Adam Smith's invisible hand. Darwin showed how complex design and ecological balance were unintended consequences of individual competition among organisms. Smith showed how national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of individual competition among people. Nature's economy mirrors society's economy. Thus, integrating evolution and economics — what I call evonomics — reveals that an old economic doctrine is supported by modern biology. Now, I am not arguing with his main point which states that trade between nations is good and leads to a buildup of trust, thereby reducing the likelihood of conflict. Neither am I challenging him when he says: "the principles of self-organization and emergence cause complex systems to arise from simple systems without a top-down designer." Agreed. I am arguing with him when he says that fiscal conservatism (taken to mean no governmental involvement in the economy) produces the greatest freedom for the greatest number; what it actually produces (as far as it has even been approached in the real world) is a small number of extremely wealthy individuals who then control the government for their own ends - a plutocracy. Darwin showed how complex design and ecological balance were unintended consequences of individual competition among organisms. Erm... no, he didn't. He did show how complex 'design' was an unintended consequence of individual competition and cooperation among organisms. There is no 'ecological balance', though. There are no rules, laws or legal enforcers in nature; capitalism and 'free markets', on the other hand, could not exist without rules, laws and powerful bodies to enforce them. Oh dear - we've already got a little bit of government before we've even started, haven't we? Smith showed how national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of individual competition among people. Erm... no, he didn't. This is hugely misleading; it leaves out the bulk of Smith's argument. It was never his intention to fetishize the 'Market'. I suggest Shermer re-reads (or perhaps more accurately, 'reads') the Wealth of Nations before coming out with such asinine assertions in future.. a little more scepticism towards conventional wisdom please, Mr. Skeptic! Whether it is a misunderstanding or (more likely) simply an unfamiliarity with what Smith actually wrote, certain economist's later views have been tacked on to the Wealth of Nations, quite unfairly, and words have been put into Smith's mouth which he himself never uttered. Leaving Adam Smith to one side, many things cannot be achieved by private companies alone, in fields such as medicine, computing, telecommunications & the internet, public utilities: anything that is not profitable in the short-term (or ever) is beyond a private company's purview. Additionally, once a company receives it's Articles of Incorportation, the shareholders are relieved of many responsibilities, which become socialized with the whole population. Furthermore, supposedly fiscally conservative governments (such as the Reagan administration) tend to engage in even more public spending than their more liberal counterparts - they just tend to focus spending on the military-industrial sector rather that on social programs. Could this spending be what keeps the economy ticking over..? In any case, such spending is there, so actually existing fiscal conservatism is not what Shermer is talking about and he cannot legitimately use it as an example of the kind of thing he has in mind. But what I really wanted to take issue with is this: 'Charles Darwin's natural selection is Adam Smith's invisible hand'. Adam Smith's invisible hand was what made the baker act in the interests of everyone (including himself) despite behaving in a selfish manner; under natural selection - by contrast - he would murder most of his rivals and collude with the rest to form a baking cartel. Human society today is emphatically not analogous to natural selection; as pointed out above, we have laws. We need laws. 'The Market' needs laws. Actually, for very different reasons than Shermer would imagine, I find his analogy quite apt, inasmuch as natural selection is a particularly cruel, unfair and highly inefficient process; such things as mass extinctions, disease, predation, suffering and starvation in addition to genetic disorders and outright bad design and non-optimal vestigial phenotypic features are the tools of natural selection's trade, as Darwin himself readily acknowledged. This is why we've always tried to mitigate the worst aspects of evolution - with technological innovations such as vaccinations & antibiotics; surgery; painkillers; clean water supplies; sanitary sewage disposal; psychotherapy; factory farming and modern agricultural practices; and now biotechnologies such as genetic engineering, to mention a few of the countless examples. Maybe what Shermer has in mind when he equates free markets with natural selection is simply allowing unfettered accumulation of wealth, handed down from generation to generation, until some individual or very small group owned almost everything - the failures would starve (or be killed or enslaved). There would only be private, mercenary armies and police, and only the very wealthy could afford them. We can see that this parallels natural selection, which, far from producing 'ecological balance', has produced one disproportionately successful species which is currently in the process of unbalancing ecological systems for what it sees as its' own short-term interests. Shermer's idea is dangerous, but not (as he thinks) because it is an unintuitive truth. On the contrary, it is dangerous precisely because it's so wrongheaded and yet so pervasive. I could speculate on why this idea is so appealing to so many, perhaps because, as with the idea of God, it is a simple idea which erroneously gives the illusion of explaining everything; once everything has been explained, no more thinking is required. But the world is far more messy and random than both these sets of true believers like to think. The useful tool of the market indeed becomes a dangerous idea when it aquires the status of an unchallengable dogmatic ideology - true laissez-faire may theoretically maximize efficiency from businesses' perspective. Unfortunately, all those pesky people with their lives, families and personal interests keep getting in the way. Just as we try to get the effects of natural selection under control, the market should also work for us - not the other way around.