Monday, 21 November 2011

Science – The New Tower of Babel?

The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel shows God confusing his people with a multitude of languages to stop their physical ascent to heaven. We now have the people of gods confusing belief with rationality, hope with truth, progress with stagnation, and predominantly doing so with misunderstanding, very often one based in language – be it the language of intentional deceit, or the language of the pursuit of knowledge.

We see it in the beliefs of the presidential candidates, in their mouthing of platitudes, the observance of form, not function, their convenient Christianity hiding several inconvenient truths. We see it in the debate about ‘Faith Schools’ in the UK. We see it in the Creation “Science” rhetoric of Intelligent Design and the desire of its proponents to either have it, or at least the “controversy”, taught in classrooms. The controversy being that such things as evolution are “just theories” – showing a profound misunderstanding of the colloquial and scientific uses of the word.

Another word that is massively mischaracterised is ‘belief’. A sceptic or rational thinker would say "I believe" and imply ‘on the basis of available information I have concluded’, whereas someone who is more inclined to intuition would say "I believe" and mean ‘on the basis of my gut feeling I feel’. This schism can be somewhat represented as physical well-being vs. spiritual well-being or, in reverse order, church and state.

In line with the gradual erosion of the separation of church and state in the US, starting with the inclusion of ‘In God We Trust’ on the legal tender over the 19th and 20th centuries. Now it is necessary for candidates to profess Christianity to have a hope of reaching the White House. This profession of Christianity runs the gamut from the conveniently Christian – and therefore liars – to the genuinely Christian – and therefore predominantly demonstrably delusional (who are also sometimes fully cognisant liars). Of the two I’d actually rather have a competent liar and political player (tautology?) than a science denier. And this has to be the ultimate cognitive dissonance... the ultimate devil and the deep-blue decision – one that no one should ever have to make, but one that the United States, particularly, makes every election.

An enlightened society must allow people to believe what they want, that is an adjunct to freedom of speech, but we cannot allow people into positions of supreme political power whose beliefs make them demonstrably unfit for office. This is an uneasy equilibrium to reach.

How do we balance the rights of freedom of speech, recognising that this speech can be used to express the most ridiculous beliefs, with the needs of civilisation to have competent people in charge? We have a hard enough time achieving this in the sphere of politics when only contesting on the basis of political ideology, let-alone religion. We have candidates lying about their faith to get in, or at least not dissuading the electorate that they are not 'of faith', and we have people who wear their faiths on their sleeves (or around their necks) – but is that the issue?

It seems that political savvy and relative popularity are the prerequisites of political office - competency is a very distant second, and very hard to measure. That said, a basic grounding in science, statistics, and economics should be common to all candidates. That is not an anti-religious sentiment, as it is quite possible to be religious and scientifically and mathematically literate. What it is not possible to be is so religiously trained as to be illogical and irrational – to place personal belief before evidence-based critical thinking – and a sensible person to have in office.

A state sponsored prayer for rain, for example, is politically savvy, but a massive waste of taxpayers money and devoid of any rational basis. The single element that might be considered positive is bringing a large group of people together and the comfort that this gives to them – but comfort doesn’t bring rain or stop forest fires - and it doesn't bring comfort to non-Christians.

Just as the jury isn’t truly a representation of a defendant’s peer group so much as a representation of a cross-section of their society, so too, should political hopefuls be an educated cross-section of the electorate. And this is something that can be tested for. How can we call ourselves an enlightened society if our leaders are unenlightened? Knowledge and belief are not mutually exclusive, but basic knowledge must serve as a baseline for political candidacy.

Governance from ignorance is an absolute and unequivocal recipe for disaster and the language of discourse needs to be clear and unambiguous. If we repair the education and rationality of the political arena maybe, just maybe, the quality of political representation will improve and, more specifically, the value of education and scientific literacy will be raised, removing the babble from the classroom.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Too beautiful a piece of editorialising to pass up...

The following is the conclusion from the paper named/dated below - first published in The Psychological Review, 55(4), 189-208. In all honesty it has precious little to do with the experiment, hence my reference to "editorialising" in the title - the parallels drawn have some validity, even if they go very far beyond what was clinically being tested.

Edward C. Tolman (1948)

"...consider the "displacement of aggression onto outgroups." Adherence to one's own group is an ever-present tendency among primates. It is found in chimpanzees and monkeys as strongly as in men. We primates operate in groups. And each individual in such a group tends to identify with his whole group in the sense that the group's goal's become his goals, the group's life and immortality, his life and immortality. Furthermore, each individual soon learns that, when as an individual he is frustrated, he must not take out his aggressions on [p.208] the other members of his own group. He learns instead to displace his aggressions onto outgroups. Such a displacement of aggression I would claim is also a narrowing of the cognitive map. The individual comes no longer to distinguish the true locus of the cause of his frustration. The poor Southern whites, who take it out on the Negroes, are displacing their aggressions from the landlords, the southern economic system, the northern capitalists, or wherever the true cause of their frustration may lie, onto a mere convenient outgroup. The physicists on the Faculty who criticize the humanities, or we psychologists who criticize all the other departments, or the University as a whole which criticizes the Secondary School system or, vice versa, the Secondary School system which criticizes the University-or, on a still larger and far more dangerous scene-we Americans who criticize the Russians and the Russians who criticize us, are also engaging, at least in part, in nothing more than such irrational displacements of our aggressions onto outgroups.

I do not mean to imply that there may not be some true interferences by the one group with the goals of the other and hence that the aggressions of the members of the one group against the members of the other are necessarily wholly and merely displaced aggressions. But I do assert that often and in large part they are such mere displacements.

Over and over again men are blinded by too violent motivations and too intense frustrations into blind and unintelligent and in the end desperately dangerous hates of outsiders. And the expression of these their displaced hates ranges all the way from discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.

What is the name of Heaven and Psychology can we do about it? My only answer is to preach again the virtues of reason-of, that is, broad cognitive maps. And to suggest that the child-trainers and the world-planners of the future can only, if at all, bring about the presence of the required rationality (i.e., comprehensive maps) if they see to it that nobody's children are too over-motivated or too frustrated. Only then can these children learn to look before and after, learn to see that there are often round-about and safer paths to their quite proper goals-learn, that is, to realize that the well-beings of White and of Negro, of Catholic and of Protestant, of Christian and of Jew, of American and of Russian (and even of males and females) are mutually interdependent.

We dare not let ourselves or others become so over-emotional, so hungry, so ill-clad, so over-motivated that only narrow strip-maps will be developed. All of us in Europe as well as in America, in the Orient as well as in the Occident, must be made calm enough and well-fed enough to be able to develop truly comprehensive maps, or, as Freud would have put it, to be able to learn to live according to the Reality Principle rather than according to the too narrow and too immediate Pleasure Principle.

We must, in short, subject our children and ourselves (as the kindly experimenter would his rats) to the optimal conditions of moderate motivation and of an absence of unnecessary frustrations, whenever we put them and ourselves before that great God-given maze which is our human world. I cannot predict whether or not we will be able, or be allowed, to do this; but I can say that, only insofar as we are able and are allowed, have we cause for hope."

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Philosophy, Consciousness, Virtual Reality & the Supernatural

By definition, you can't prove or disprove the supernatural with the natural, but you can disprove a supernatural claim on a natural occurrence - and once you have a natural answer to a claimed supernatural event the realm of the supernatural shrinks just a little bit more (or moves). The question then has to be: At what point does the supernatural pass into the natural?

If our natural bodies contain a supernatural spirit/soul what element of the natural body is it that contains the soul? What is it that ties the spiritual to the corporeal? If you can state what it is you can quantify it... or disprove it.

To me, this is philosophy, discussing the uneasy meeting point between modern science and modern religion (the latter being, as Sam Harris puts it, a failed science, although that is a little glib and ignores the never-intended-to-be-scientific elements of religion).

As science explains more and more of the natural world it limits the postulated input of the supernatural to less and less - the only question that remains is whether that will ever be nil.

To me the supernatural is analogous to our ability to think about the way we think.

The ability to think conceptually as well as concretely, virtually by definition, brings about our ability to conceive the supernatural, as such it is entirely virtual.

We will always be able to conceive of things outside the realms of the currently provable - the teapot orbiting the moon will become the teapot orbiting Alpha Centauri, then Betelgeuse, then Deneb - but this only serves to push us to further our actual knowledge and do away with (or be more sophisticated with) our wishful thinking.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

God is Love?

So God cooked up this little sting operation to tempt Adam and Eve with the fruits of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God, that’s a mouthful. From this blatant entrapment we get ‘The Fall of Man’, ‘The Original Sin’ and all these other wonderful guilt-trips visited upon Adam’s sons. Best of all we are apparently all born into sin.

Now, it occurs to me that the only “Sin” a new-born child can be guilty of is a lack of faith, what with being born an atheist and all (prove to me that a new born believes in any gods and I’ll be happy to retract). And whilst ‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse’ is a well-tested idea, there is a lot of work being done at the moment on what age that holds true from. No matter how authoritarian the regime I’m pretty sure we won’t be sentencing babies for pooping in public (and we won’t be trying pigs for public nuisance).

The God that loves his children entraps them by making them guilty – without trial, mind you – from birth. Once the children are old enough to know the wages of sin, and fear for their mortal souls, the fact of being born into it, acts as a very strong incentive to do good… except it doesn’t because there’s this ridiculous out-clause:

Pray for forgiveness, and accept God into your life.

The thing about that, though, is it takes personal responsibility and does away with it. Then again, this is a lesson already learned from birth.

In the words of the Chemical Brothers, “I’m alive, I’m alone, and I never asked to be either of those.”

Born into a life you didn’t choose, as a sinner. Repent, and be saved. Sin, quite consciously now. Repent, and be saved. Sin some more (‘cause it was quite fun the first time). Repent, and be saved. Rinse (with holy water) and repeat.

Fortunately, most of the so-called sins from which people repent are those “sins” that don’t harm anyone – masturbation (more on that in a bit), pre-marital sex, coveting damned near anyone, etc., etc.

Unfortunately, once you’ve established a pattern of abuse of the rules it’s very easy to escalate. Take a look at prison statistics and professed religious affiliations some time.

God loves you, and proves it by making you feel bad for being brought into existence (by him).

God loves you, and shows this by making you feel bad for breaking his rules, rules that don’t make sense in the context of his own creation (masturbation and all forms of (consensual) sex are hypothesised to reduce certain cancers and improve health and reproductive ability*).

God loves you, but only if you love him.

*RJ Levin - Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 2007 - Routledge

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

A logical derivation of morals

Let’s look at human morals or, as co-opted by the church, Christian morals.

Too many apologists suggest that man without God is incapable of knowing moral behaviour and having morals. Then again it was God’s sting operation with ‘The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil’ (to give it its full name) that got us here. (I’m not sure where entrapment falls on the scale of moral behaviours as seen from an Abrahamic perspective.) For starters, you can’t have a knowledge of good and evil, you can only have an opinion, albeit that the majority of humanity, the majority of whom are not Christian, are in agreement on the most basic matters of moral behaviour.

How and why?

Ignoring for the moment the evolutionarily derivable behaviours that we can see in numerous species that, when placed in a human context, seem moral. And forgetting that the beasts of the land and the birds of the air are indeed capable of emotion and thus able to be affected by them. How can we get a moral code with little outside input? Can we achieve this with logic? I think we can. And logic, when discussed, then becomes part of our verbal heritage and takes on its own evolution.

Humans, as with most species are self-preservatory, this makes sense – look after number one. I’m not aware of any truly altruistic animal that will lay down its life wholly and exclusively for the betterment of the species. Would be interested to see examples if there are.

Humans as with many species rely on those closest to them for food, shelter and so on. So familial and then tribal affiliations are self-preservatory at the most basic level. Families and tribes are not likely to lay down their lives for the betterment of the species as a whole; the individuals may possibly lay down their lives for one another or for the family/tribe.

I mention species in both contexts because propagation thereof is ultimately a reason for self-preservation at a personal level. Even though self-sacrifice for the species as a whole could potentially be seen as achieving the same outcome when seen from the perspective of the species (although getting a hive-mind consensus could be tricky).

So, logical morals:

  • That which harms me is bad.
  • I live in a group whom I rely upon for the stuff of survival, so that which harms them is bad, as it will potentially harm me.
  • The group is made up of individuals, each being their own ‘me’, each adhering to the first rule. In order to ensure that none of the other individuals in the group harm me I should be seen to not harm them (the personal version of mutually assured destruction).
  • If I see the potential for harm to a family/tribe member and I can stop that from occurring with no danger to myself I should as the favour would be returned and they are indirectly instrumental to my survival.
  • If I see the potential for harm to a family/tribe member and I can stop that from occurring, but with likely danger to myself, I might, as the favour would be returned and they are indirectly instrumental to my survival. (This will depend on the weight of perceived emotional connection and intrinsic “value”.)

Tangent into the Trolley Problem taken as read.

I believe we can derive all moral/ethical decisions in this way (and some are so conceptual that we have to, it’s called the law). I’m not suggesting that we do derive our morals purely from logic tempered by emotional logic and self-centredness, just that we can.

If we can derive our morals through thought alone, without referring to faith (in fact in defiance of faith by being proud and greedy - self-centred - with a touch of sloth for good measure). And if we can show moral behaviour in animals with whom we share common ancestors, couldn’t either one of these, when pitted against the concept of a creator pre-programming us with these morals, be the victor when applying Occam’s Razor?

Bear in mind that Occam’s Razor calls for the simplest solution (not the most simplistic one) to be the most likely. Which is to say that the explanation that makes the fewest unsupportable suppositions is that which will, on balance, prove to be correct. If you pit either the concept of ‘evolved morality’ or the concept of ‘logical derivation’ against ‘God made us this way’ the result has to be anything but ‘religious morality’ – this is not sophistry, either one can be argued out fully and I encourage people to do so.

The knowledge schism - the schism the church isn’t talking about

Whilst there had been propositions in the past that flew in the face of orthodoxy it has only really been since the 16th and 17th centuries that the extent of human knowledge, and the extent of the dissemination of that knowledge, and the degree to which it disagreed with doctrine (whilst being agreed upon by scholars), that has caused the Abrahamic religions difficulty. I say the 16th and 17th centuries because of such luminaries as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler and their input into astronomy (and other sciences, let’s be honest) and the final destruction of the flat earth and geo-centrism (thereby reclaiming (the) heaven(s) for the rationalists).

It is worth noting that it took the Catholic church 125 years to lift the ban on (effectively) heliocentrism and a further 75 years to have Copernicus’ ‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium’ (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) and Galileo’s ‘Dialogue [Concerning the Two Chief World Systems]’ omitted from its ‘Index of Forbidden Books’.

Not admitted as fact, merely omitted from the list… a sin of omission?

It was only another 165 years until Galileo got an apology for his trial for heresy. 367 years to admit that a man was right and God was wrong, presumably to allow the church enough time to gather together enough experts in obfuscation (which is to say intellectuals and philosophers with an overweening need to cleave to the church), to “plausibly” explain away the disparities.

The church openly espoused the quest for knowledge and the dissemination thereof, what with libraries and scriptoriums and the scholarly pursuits of priests and monks. That is until books became more readily available and rather more unappetising knowledge was being disseminated (see Copernicus and Galileo, above, as well as Kepler's ‘Epitome Astronomiae Copernicianae’).

125 years seems to be a magic number, for the Catholic church at least, see the book ban above. 125 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press the Catholic Church created its ‘Index of Forbidden Books’ (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) in, you guessed it, the 16th century.

It sickens me to think that the church(es), formerly so instrumental in the gaining, storing and dissemination of knowledge, are now caught in a self-preservatory scramble to maintain ignorance in the masses, to allow them to continue to peddle their wares of faith, belief and the afterlife despite the increasing weight of evidence against the basis of that belief.

If you were ever under any illusions about the fact that religion is a business, then its behaviour should be ample evidence that it is.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Father Paradox


One can’t go back in time and kill one’s own grandfather as, in doing so, one would never be born – if one was never born one couldn’t go back and kill one’s own grandfather, thus the grandfather survives and the would be time-traveller is born.

This, to me, is an elegant reason why time travel, which is to say travelling backwards in time to a past earth, is not possible. Imagine the changes to human history if one landed on a butterfly… Chaos!


An analogue to the Grandfather Paradox, to my mind, is what I will call, for the moment at least, the God/Father Paradox (eventually the joy of the pun will wear off and I’ll think of something a little more prosaic).

The God/Father paradox runs like this:

An omniscient creator cannot bestow its creation with an intellect and provide it with knowledge from which to base its exploration, then allow that knowledge to be overturned by subsequent learning and thus be proved wrong and, by extension, to not exist.

So the parallel runs like this:
  1. There is time travel
  2. A man travels back in time
  3. He kills his own Grandfather
  4. Without a grandfather he would not be born and would not travel back in time to kill his grandfather
  5. Time travel can not happen

  1. There is a God
  2. God gives man an intellect
  3. Human knowledge disagrees with the knowledge handed down by God.
  4. If the knowledge of the world handed down by God is disproved then God’s omniscience is void.
  5. God does not exist

I agree it’s not perfect, if only in the words used to express it, but just as the Grandfather Paradox and the philosophical auto-infanticide memes are useful thought experiments I think this one bears further examination.

So please, comment, discuss – what are the ramifications on the existence of God that the creator’s creation has debunked the scriptural version of events?

Omnipresent? Where were you?
Omniscient? I don’t think so.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Patterns and Boundaries...

First off let me apologise for the looong break. I spent the best part of four months in New Zealand (aka home) over the Northern hemisphere winter, been back, done a bit of house-moving and so on. Anyway...

This is a thought-piece that I've bashed together on the back of some ideas I've had recently. I'd like to expand on this significantly in the future, so I'm interested to get opinions on any/all of it.


Patterns and Boundaries...

As a species we look for patterns in the chaos (but the chaos is just order of a different magnitude - but more about that some other time). Once we've seen a pattern we try and super-impose those patterns over other things; we try and force these patterns onto other often disparate aspects of our existence.

As adults we like to delude ourselves that we are better or more or above children, we're not. Just as almost all child-rearing literature talks about children needing even craving boundaries and rules and patterns and logical consequence so too do adults. Given that children raised without boundaries and discipline often have trouble 'getting on', it seems that this is an essential nature of humanity, It is not raising in a nurturing environment with adequate rules and boundaries that leads to abject failure (or, ironically, great thinking and creativity). It's our ability to establish or adopt rules that genuinely work for us that defines our success (for a given value of success). To complicate this (as only humans can), the other set of people that succeed are the people who create or perpetuate rules that other people take up.

Humanity's knowledge of the world (and the cosmos) around it has increased over time as more and more of the patterns, rules and guidelines we've intuited or invented have proven to be true, or at least to work, even if only in a limited sense.

As a story-telling primate we have gradually moved from stories that define micro-realities (good for familial or tribal groups) to clever but ultimately ignorant savages with massive egos super-imposing anthropomorphic rules on nature and existence: the majority of human religions. We are now, and increasingly, mapping the macro-realities with science and reason.

The part that religion has had to play in the evolution of the establishing of rules that work for humanity can not be ignored. Though one could readily argue that it was a codification of instinctual human ethics many of the rules for living with your fellow human contained in the books of the Abrahamic religions are as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago. Many, however, are not. And it is religion's inherent intransigence, its all-too-human unwillingness to be proven wrong, that assures the eventual and long-overdue demise of its current form.