Saturday, December 10, 2011

Today is Human Rights Day

One of the greatest advances in human history (IMHO) is celebrated today, the 10th December.  It is Human Rights Day, celebrating the United Nations adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10th December, 1948.

Please have a read of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Go on, it's not that long.  I feel that  it is one of the best things that humans have ever done for themselves.  The production of the declaration out of the ashes of the Second World War was in part to have nations everywhere declare, "never again" and to specifically set out how the modern human world will interact with itself.  This document was a turning point in human history, as stated by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature in the chapter on the Rights Revolution.  What followed was an acceleration of the decline in violence, and the increase in rights (human, animal, ecological) over the rest of the century.  It is a positive document that says how humans have a right to be treated, and how to treat others.

Importantly, it is a secular document - no theology is needed for the clauses to come about.  In fact, there is still a struggle even today to have the declaration followed throughout the human world, notably the worst places for human rights are totalitarian dictatorships (such as North Korea) and theocracies such as Iran.  Given the complexities of the modern nation-states, with certain countries advocating for blasphemy laws to be exempt from the declaration, sometimes I wonder if such a document could be written today.  Still, we have it, and for the last 63 years it has set the benchmark for how we treat each other, and having such a universal benchmark is a remarkable and important thing. 

For the past billion years or so, life on this planet has been based on the principle of basic survival and reproduction.  Any living thing that could take advantage to promote its survival, or that of its offspring, would take it without any second thought.  It is only in the last fraction of a fraction of the time that life has existed here that any life form has declared that a living entity has rights, simply by virtue of being alive, and affirms that all people have the right to pursue their own enlightened self interest, without interference*.

So, Happy Human Rights Day to all!

1) Article 14 clarifies that actions that are unlawful are not granted under this declaration, so it is not a free-for-all.
2) Edited several times as other thoughts arise and for clarity.

Skyrim: is there anywhere else to spend summer?

I am currently on holiday in Skyrim, and enjoying the scenery, and getting to know the colourful natives, and the wildlife.

I managed to take a snapshot of a rare clear day at Azura's Shrine, I hope it comes out OK:

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Words as weapons, or tools?

I agree with both Dave and matt.  The choice of words is a good example of the difference between the Abrahamic tradition religions and the Eastern (Taoist and Buddhist) philosophies.  An Abrahamic would refer to items or statements as "weapons" whereas an Eastern would refer to them as "tools".    After all, in The Art of War it is said that winning without fighting is best.

I get tired of these discussions being dominated by an Abrahamic mindset, where words like "blasphemy" and "heretic" have meaning.  The idea that a god set out all of the instructions for humankind in a badly worded and contradictory immutable book to a set of remote tribes in a small corner of the world is laughable, and to continue to engage in discussions with this as the philosophical basis is equally silly.  Abrahamic religions just seem so completely prescriptive and dictatorial, with no scope for dissent.  Quite immature by comparison really.

As far as I am aware (and would welcome correction if anyone knows it) the words "blasphemy" and "heretic" do not exist in the context of Taoism or Buddhism.  After all, in Taoism there is the idea that a person is a fool to laugh at the Tao, but without the laughter, there would be no Tao.  I state this not to explain what the Tao is, but to point out contrary opinions are welcome and indeed necessary for a living philosophy and world view to flourish.

Ugh, it is 1:07am here, so I don’t know if this is making sense.  I fear that I will wake up later today and be terribly embarrassed.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Cultural Interlude #1.

From an early age, I have enjoyed classical music, as well as other forms of music.  One of my favourite pieces is this one, played by John Williams:

John Williams has had a rather impressive career as a soloist, but he was also a member of the progressive rock band Sky.  You may know of Sky from this:

The bass and overall composition in Toccata is quite powerful, and rounds out the music to give a satisfying umph.  The bassist is Mr Herbie Flowers. 

I should back up a bit here, and explain what brought on this reminiscence of enjoyable music from the past.  One of the more colourful ways that the Bible is described in WEIT is as a fairy story, with an angry giant, talking snakes and magical trees.  The mentioning of a fairy story brought on a memory of another Sky piece, which is actually quite a nice piece to listen to while reading the more serious parts of the Bible:

Herbie Flowers is still around, as far as I know, and is a very versatile jazz musician.  You may not know his name, but you probably know of his work as the writer and player of one of the most famous bass riffs in modern music, described hereunder:

From what I understand, Herbie Flowers had a condition for joining Sky: he was learning to play the tuba at the time, wanted to do a tuba solo at some point in a live performance.  The resulting masterpiece is a particular favourite of mine, and could well be my unofficial theme song, if I could have one.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Birthday joy

The other day it was my birthday, and my parents gave me money as a gift.  My parents, being Dutch, give money to show that they care.  Ok, so my mum said that I should buy what I want with the birthday money. 
So I did.

A successful day shopping at Big W.

I must apologise for my slovenly appearance, but I have had flu for a few days.  We were going to go to the doctor, but decided to do some shopping first, and Big W was having a toy sale.  Bought this for $38.75.

The Nerf Vulcan EBF-25 is an interesting toy.  It shoots the nerf darts at a rate of about 3 per second, unfortunately it is hard to see on the video after it is uploaded:


Heh.  Oh Noes.  Breach Jam.

Lots of harmless fun :)

Never did make it to the doctor that day.

I am afraid I am repeating myself.

In response to a posting about vegan friends that are unhealthy:
I don’t know about your vegan friends, but as my family and I have been vegan for many years and have very normal health (regular blood tests confirm normalcy), I suspect they are doing it wrong. We don’t take extra supplements, and the fortified foods that are available are quite satisfactory. I don’t see the need for vat-grown meat as vegetable-based protein is already just fine, but knock yourself out when they make it ;) BTW, vat grown protein does not need to be fed and watered for up to three years, and probably excretes far less than your average bovine, so yes, I would argue that it takes less resources.

I find the argument of being on a desert island unsatisfactory, as the arguer is typically very far from those sort of places, or in those starving situations. Of course, as a sentient being we want to have survival, and if you are on a desert island, or trapped in the arctic, knock yourself out again. But as a quite large percentage of people are not in those situations, it really doesn’t apply.

Meat substitutes are available, and require fewer grains, water and other foods to produce than do livestock (not to mention the production of greenhouse gasses), so I cannot see that there is a valid excuse that can be made, except the stubborn ones such as “I like the taste”. And if the mistreatment and wholesale slaughter of animals that can think and feel just so you can enjoy the taste is what you want to do, then I dunno what to say to that. What I can say is that as every living thing will only experience life once in this universe, who are we to say that life should not be given as much opportunity to live as we can. Of course we as humans also have a need to eat, but we are smart enough to be able to do it without causing excessive pain and suffering, or the destruction of the biosphere that we rely on.

Peter Singer writes on this much more eloquently than I can, such as here , and there is a good Conversation article here.

In addition, the idea that an animal should have a full, enjoyable life on the farm before killing it is not that much of a step up;  Essentially it is allowing that an animal should have what we would consider a good life.  But then, one day when the owner decides that they would like the taste of real flesh, or the economic value of the animal is sufficient for slaughter, they are effectivly saying to the animal, "Well, you have had a fun time long enough, but now you cannot have any more days of experiencing this univserse because I am hungry/want the money."

Friday, July 01, 2011

GOP and the Debt Ceiling

As per Andew Sullivan's posting, asking the question if the GOP is not playing chicken: We have seen this in the movie Spies Like Us
Picture the guys in suits as negotiating Democrats willing to concede to the GOP.
The significant quote starts at 3:36, and more importantly 4:10

Monday, June 13, 2011

Science incompatiblity with religion

As per my last posting, modern theology involves the transformation of sacred text "A" to "B" in order to match scientific fact "F".  This transformation can be expressed as a function:  f(A) = B.

Of course this means that A = f-1(B)

Now, theology is based on the study of A, which is assumed to be constant. Since B is the only "correct" interpretation of A, the only way A can stay as A is if the antifact f-1() is applied. Antifacts are a function of anti-science.

To put another way, sacred texts are only true in themselves if the anti-science function is applied to B.  Therefore science and religion are incompatible.

It's Pile on Michael Ruse Day today

Michael Ruse has written an article which states that Adam and Eve are a myth (hooray!) but don't worry, the important bits of the Christian Bible are still True (with a capital-T):
God is creator, Jesus is his son who died on the cross for our sake, this act of sacrifice made possible our eternal salvation -- these claims are unchanged. But what exactly this all might mean is another matter. 
*sigh* I will never have what it takes to be a philosopher, as keeping to an outdated text in light of new knowledge is a special art.  I can picture it: one day reading a sacred text sentence and understanding that it clearly states "A" and means "A".  Then upon receiving some revised scientific fact "F", mumbling to myself, 'Ah, this text says "A" but must mean "B" so that "F" fits.'  The text "A" does not and must not ever change.  Text "A" is assumed to be correct for whatever the definition of correct is now.  It is like numerology: Any number or sequence of numbers can be imagined to have any meaning you want with applied interpretation.  It seems that the philosopher's job is to do the same with sacred texts; keep the words, but have a mental transformation of the text from "A" to "B".  I don't have the mental fortitude to keep assuming such a flawed source text is correct, when so much of it is shown to be bunkum.  I would toss it out and get something more accurate and up to date.  Ah well, I can console myself with the fact I am better paid than a philosopher, without having to go through these mental gymnastics.

Note that the language can force changes to it - see The King James Bible, or the first bibles printed in English/Dutch/German instead of Latin, but the translation is very carefully kept intact.

Science will never be overtaken by theology or religion as far as relevance goes while theology continues to use a source book that is never revised or updated.  Old textbooks are not very useful as they contain outdated information, so are regularly updated and revised, and the old editions pulped for recycling.  Sacred religious texts (Bible, Koran etc) are kept as old as possible so the true word of god is not mistaken.  Anything stated as clear fact in a sacred text that disagrees with science is then classified as metaphor or reinterpreted by theologists; but why is the source text not updated to reflect this new understanding?  Where are the "F" and "B" footnotes?  These texts are the words of God;  his vital instructions to all humans on the most important subjects ever!  Is it not every theologists and philosophers duty to make sure the followers of these texts understand what they "really" mean?

It is almost as if the main goal is to prevent revised knowledge from getting to the vast majority of readers, otherwise they might question the validity of the source material.

How about theologists get together and annotate the bible by highlighting the bits to take literally, and use a different colour for metaphor, and footnote the metaphor to explain it.  Now there's a project just crying out for Templeton funding.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Another atheist conference finished, but what now?

Gosh I wish I was more awake now to add something coherent to this (00:50am here *yawn*)

Having seen some of the output of the conferences with issuing declarations of what we want in a modern secular society and it is all very nice having social outings, but what are they (the conferences) actually for?  If the goal is a secular, humane, critical thinking world, free of superstition and unthinking dogma, do these conferences come up with plans and objectives to reach these goals?  New lobby groups or expansion of the existing allied groups such as Humanist societies?  Media outreach and programs to increase awareness that critical thinking is a nice thing for humans to do?

Maybe if I had the time and money, I could attend a gathering to see for myself what they actually achieve, and I hope there is progress.  Although, as a teetotaller with a vegan diet, the I might not get so much out of the parties as other attendees might.  So, what happens next?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Oxford University finds Religion is pervasive; social confirmation at work

Over at WEIT, Jerry has pointed out an Oxford University study that is getting lots of media attention.  The study is of how pervasive and common religious thinking is throughout the world, and since religion is common, it deserves a sense of credibility and respect. 
“If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature, thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests,” Trigg said.
So, what they are saying is that large groups of humans are able to believe things that they have no evidence for over an extended period of time.  I am pretty sure this was covered in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.  Just because humans are able to share delusions doesn't make those delusions any more real.

I just finished reading the book, The Invisible Gorilla, and I highly recommend it if you are interested in cognitive processing.  It is "a book about six everyday illusions that profoundly influence our lives: the illusions of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause and potential."  The authors describe through anecdotes and experiments how the human mind can easily and naturally fool itself into thinking it knows and remembers things that are just not true.  Given that it is quite natural for us humans to automatically delude ourselves in our everyday lives, it is not surprising that one of the areas of human cognition that is pervasive and common is to hold some religious belief; beliefs that are created with little or no evidence, and supported and encouraged exactly because they have so little proof or are fuzzily defined.

As for science vs religion, The Invisible Gorilla has a quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that is quite apt:
"The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something that you actually don’t."
This Templeton-funded study says that religion is common, and that is it. If there has not been an investigation into the truth of the beliefs, then this study’s purpose is really only to further belief in religion through the influence of a social proof; lots of people believe it, so it must be true. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sad news on the Eagle Cam

As reported on WEIT, the female eagle that has been observed on the EagleCam, has died after being hit by a jet plane. 
This is very sad news, as the eaglets (?) are still fledglings, and now have to be cared for by the father alone.  From what I read this morning, this mating pair had been together for 10 years.

There are a lot of emotional responses on the web stating how sad this news is, and hopes that the father will be able to cope with the loss, and be able to raise the chicks on his own. 

This has got me to thinking a few things about it:

Does the male know the female had been killed, or is it unaware of the fate of its mate?  For all I know, the male may only be experiencing a sense of loss as to why the female has not returned from hunting, or maybe even only being aware that the eaglets are more hungry than usual, and need more feeding.

I would not be surprised if the male is experiencing some emotion over it, as it is not out of the question that other animals can exhibit and express emotional responses.  Nearly everything about us as a living creature comes from our evolved past, and emotions seem to be a prime candidate for evolution.  Reacting to some event with an emotion can be a good short cut to the proper or appropriate reaction.  Some times it is misplaced, but generally it works out for the best.  It seems to me that emotions take place without engaging the rational parts of our brains; we experience some event, the emotional systems kick in first, we react, and then we rationalise our reaction in light of the event and our emotional response.

Empathy: We humans feel sad for the widower of another species, and it is not that mysterious.  The ability to feel empathy across species is not special to humans either.  For example, who has not experienced feeling sad, and having the family dog come over and lay their head in your lap and sigh?  The circuitry for feeling such emotions are built into all of us (us including non-human animals) and have been evolved into conscious creatures for a long time, although how far back I don’t know. It may be an interesting question for how closely we share these emotions with animals that branched from us in the distant past.

At a guess one way that can evolve in is to first have the kin protecting emotion to recognise when one of our relatives is in distress and to go to assist that relative.  As a social animal, this feeling is promoted in the well being of others of our herd and promotes a better means of survival for our herd, and the sense of empathy towards unrelated animals grows.  We then have the next step of recognising empathy towards unrelated species.  Remember that we are not typically enemies of other species, so without a sense of animosity towards them, we can imprint empathy to them.

Why are these particular animals so special that we invest emotions into their lives, while millions of other animals, some more conscious, some less, will die today due to human activities?  I know from my personal experience that humans do not need to kill or exploit animals to survive.  In fact, after tucking into my coffee and chocolate cake this morning (both vegan recipes) I know that we can have a rather luxurious life without exploiting conscious creatures.  So why is it so difficult to explain to people that the regretful emotion they are experiencing over animals they have known is just as valid to express over animals they have not known?

Friday, April 08, 2011

Sam Harris debated William Lane Craig - ugh

Just finished listening to the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, as discussed at Why Evolution is True, and there was one point that really annoyed me that it was not addressed, WLC argued:

If god exists, then we have an objective basis for morality. 
If god does not exist then we do not have an objective morality, therefore morality does not exist.

Of course this argument is for saying that god must exist, or we would not want to suffer the consequences.   Consequentialism is not a good reason for having an unfounded assumption.

I would have preferred a response to this argument that was reframed from an atheist point of view. A better response is that we know morality exists, and because god doesn't exist* morality must be intrinsic in how conscious creatures think.  Easy peasy.  I think that is what Sam Harris is getting at in his book, The Moral Landscape.

WLC also argued that we must have an objective morality, and the only way to have an objective morality is through some higher authority that dictates what that morality is.  Sam Harris responded that objective morality exists anyway.  To expand on that, what WLC is saying is that morality needs to be dictated by, well, a dictator.  Appointed for life, and as he is an immortal being, that is as big a dictatorship as one can get, this dictator has ultimate say in all things, and there is no avenue for redress.  Back here on Earth, in some countries we did away with kings and their absolute power a long time ago, and replaced them with representative democracy.  This is a good analogy as to why we don't even need the idea of a god.  Through parliamentary representation, common law and equality under law we have our own objective morality that is decided through the rules of law and the decisions of the people under which that law applies.  No need for kings.

* no evidence for god = no god.

Update: I should have mentioned in the beginning of this post that I thought Sam Harris did an excellent job in the debate, and enjoyed what he had to say.  My annoyance is just what popped into my head at the time.  As for WLC, not so much on the enjoyment front there. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Languange and Gnu Atheism

This is a very good illustrated talk on language, and the purposes of veiled ways of taking that are needed in order to maintain relationships. Talking in a veiled manner is used in order to negotiate an outcome or come to an understanding when an awkwardness exists between the participants in that they may not know what the other knows, and know what they know what the other knows, and so on.

The important bit as far as Gnu Atheism is concerned is in the latter part of the presentation, in which the speaker explains why the little boy speaking his mind in the fable about the emperor with no clothes is so effective and necessary in order to bring about a change in thinking. It also applies to the Gnu Atheist movement advertising that tells people that it is OK to accept that gods do not exist. This example also shows why it is important for New Atheists (and their Gnu cousins) to be vocal, outspoken and public. It is so the other members of the public can feel the sense of social knowledge and have acceptance of non-belief, instead of the sense of awkwardness.

Religious organisations have known or instinctively acted on this. In the past it was blasphemy laws that enforced the limiting of questioning religious authority so that it could not be discussed with anyone, as anyone could inform on you. Totalitarian governments work in the same way. Opposition cannot be organised because you don't know who to trust, or how widespread the same feeling of opposition exists. What is true for all forms of oppression of a social group is that while the knowledge of rejection remains restricted to the individual no progress can be made. This is why the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have been triggered by truth and social media, and why governments suppress them as a matter of course; facebook and twitter have become ways of spreading individual knowledge to the wider group that allows dissenting thought to be socially acceptable.

In these more enlightened days the blasphemy laws are reduced or removed from the state laws, so the religious organisations have to fall back to social pressures in order to keep dissenting voices silent. Religions know that the longer and more widespread the silence exists, the more that people can only go so far as to individually reject religion, but only in their own minds. So the power of religion remains. If one cannot know that one can safely be overtly non-religious, so one also has the social pressure for exhibiting religiousness for external appearances.

This is where the accomodationalism comes in. The accomodationalists want to have a veiled conversation about science and religion or superstition so that they can pretend to remain friends with the religious. The language used by accomodationalists is a veiled language, so the uncritical listeners get the message that they want to hear. The faithful hear that science does not contradict their faith (even though it does in reality) and the scientists hear that it is OK to teach science to the faithful as they are not contradicting the faithful beliefs (even though it does if done properly)

Conversely, Gnu Atheists have no interest in pretending to remain friends with religious persons they don't personally know, and so are quite happy to say that superstitions and myths are silly when there is evidence to show that they are silly. The price that the Gnus pay is they may lose some friends, but maintain their integrity and intellectual honesty. What it also says is that in the case of religions and superstitions Gnus tend to value a friendship based on honesty more than one based on the pretend veiling of conversations.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

An Implausibility of Gnus

According to that great and highly respected reference, Pub Quiz Help the collective noun for Gnus is an "Implausibility or Herd" of which I will ignore herd as it is too mundane :o

As the idea of being a Gnu Atheist is a bit of whimsy, I hope adding a bit of reason as to why it is appropriate to be referred to as an Implausibility of Gnu Atheists isn't too serious. Put simply:
1) Atheism exists as a counter to theism. If theism did not exist, there would be no atheists;
2) New Atheism exists because we are modern enough and have enough science behind us to know that any theism is extremely implausible, as there is no evidence to support it;
3) Gnu Atheism exists because New Atheists are not strident enough; and
4) The need to collect a disparate group of people with widely differing backgrounds together to unite and be strident against the ludicrous notion that adults that indulge in fairy stories and must be taken seriously is well, implausible.

So I put it that an Implausibility of Gnus is very apt, appropriate, and embraceable.

The Rightness of Wrongness

There is the story of a professor at a university that has taught the same theory, with passion, for decades, and one day hears a lecture by a visiting scientist. The contents of this lecture presents the data, reasoning and evidence that the basis of the lessons of the professor, that he had held so dear as part of his teaching, are wrong. The professor, upon the conclusion of the lecture, is said to have stood up and shook the hand of the visitor, thanking him for removing the fallacy and correcting his thinking. From memory, I think this was in one of Richard Dawkins books, I think it was The God Delusion, but I don't have a copy here to check.

In any case it is a nice story, and one that touches the heart. Perhaps it touches because it has the appearance of humility that we can aspire to; the admission of being wrong and being happy to be shown to be wrong. When I consider my feelings as to why this touches me emotionally, it is because I can put myself in that position, but to my internal shame, realise that my own reaction may not be so humble. You see, I have a problem of ego; I want to be considered to be right. Being right is quite a common feeling that humans have and is part of our cognitive makeup. We need to feel right so we can derive some stimulation that promotes the keeping of correct information in our brains.

I don’t like it when I am wrong. Being wrong leaves me with have uncomfortable feelings and emotions. It is hard to admit that I am wrong, and it is a failing that I need to be more aware of and correct so I can be a better person. Hopefully since I am aware of it I can act on it. It takes practice, but detaching the ego from the sense of rightness is a very important step.

Religions tend to have an insistence of having an absolutely infallible model of reality, which is really an old-fashioned dogma that has been whittled away since the enlightenment times of the 17th century. Our meat brains are the product of billions of years of evolution which means they are very good at survival, but not necessarily able to be right all the time about all of reality. Our brains are good at helping us survive, and have allowed us to make a complex, interrelated technological world, but that doesn’t mean we are right all the time. So we must expect that we can be wrong about a great many things. Nothing in human experience is permanent, or immutable; all findings are provisional.

The professional scientist, in fact any professional person, needs to have a sense of “rightness” so they can do their job and function with confidence. It would be quite debilitating to constantly second-guess all of the concepts that we hold in our heads all of the time. So we get comfortable with what we know. However, the thing that distinguishes a professional from the amateur is the ability to accept that when they are wrong they must correct their mistake. It is far more important to be correct than to be considered as right. The social and psychological pressure that resists this correction is that being considered right is one of the ways that a person can have the confidence of their employers, superiors, customers, peers, friends and relations. Having to admit being wrong gives the sense that this confidence has been misplaced, and leaves me feeling disappointed that I was not correct in the first place.

Scientists, like in the example in the first paragraph, have to confront the reality that they will be wrong many times, and learn that there is no shame in this. Being wrong, admitting it, and correcting the erroneous ideas are the way to approach reality in an adult fashion. In the wider society, it is rare for someone to admit they are wrong without getting some social stigma attached, and I would like to see that change. I would like to see a wider acceptance of being allowed to be wrong at some point in the past so it is easier to be correct oneself when new knowledge arises. Acknowledging wrongness and correcting mistakes should not have a significant social cost.

Wilfully remaining wrong, in the face of evidence, on the other hand, should have considerable social cost, although what that cost should be, I do not know.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Great Brisbane Flood of 2011

Well, we are on a huge island as my suburb is cut off from the rest of Brisbane
This is the view on the Centenary Highway this morning at 9:00am.

View Larger Map

Friday, January 07, 2011

More drafty ideas on ideas

To elaborate on an earlier point, I need to make progress on the idea blasphemy and why someone would be violently opposed to me having an idea in my brain that is different or contradicting an idea in that person's brain. Come to think of it, this is similar to the earlier post I made on truth-labeling in the brain, where the clinging to an idea (or, retaining the truth-label on the idea) is more important to scrubbing the idea of its truth-label. Combined with social validation of ideas (where if something is not true, at least if everyone else believes that falsehood, it removes the pain of believing something that is not true by having social confirmation of the false idea) makes some kind of sense... if only I had the words.