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Facts, Logic, Morality

September 18, 2017 2 comments

I recently spent some time with a colleague discussing how to deal with a fundamentalist Christian’s irrational ideas that he had recently become aware of. I have to say that this fundy keeps his crazy ideas pretty much to himself and is otherwise a perfectly pleasant and reasonable person, so there was no real need to try to “convert” him, but sometimes the need to try arises – such as in a debate situation – so I thought I might describe my technique here.

I have had varying degrees of success with this in the past, from complete rejection (because some people are never going to change their views) to moderate success (for example, a person admitting to changing his opinions, or one who was on the road to enlightenment: that is, believing the same thing as me, and I am fully aware of how arrogant that sounds).

But where I have had some successes it has never been using just one technique. In addition, it is never easy to tell which method of persuasion is likely to be effective for a particular individual, so I have created a three step process which formalises by debating technique…

Step 1. Use facts.

My first instinct when debating controversial issues is to use facts. In general the issues I support can be easily supported with good evidence. But most people who believe in irrational ideas didn’t get to that point by following the facts, because there never are many supporting them. So it often follows that they can’t be moved by using facts either.

In addition there are always facts on both sides. Sometimes the “facts” on one side are barely facts at all (hence the quotes) but many people will believe an extremely doubtful or weak fact if it supports what they want to believe, even if there are a hundred which are much more certain against them.

Step 2. Use logic.

When step 1 fails it is often useful to try a process of logic. A complex idea can be broken down into a series of steps which logically follow and are difficult to deny. There doesn’t necessarily have to be any facts involved in this because logic usually transcends facts.

Step 3. Use morality.

If both facts and logic fail a good backup strategy, depending on the actual subject under discussion, is to use a moral or ethical argument. While morals vary from one person to another to some extent, there are common concepts shared by most people, including fairness, non-violence, and freedom.

So now I should give an example. Obviously I’m not going into details because half my readers won’t have even got this far and are unlikely to want to read 20 pages on the subject, but I will use a very condensed version of how I would handle the issue. So here’s an imaginary debate between me and a fundamentalist Christian…

Fundy: The Bible says that God created humans, so evolution cannot be true, and following events described there it makes it obvious the world is only 6000 years old. The Bible also says that it is the inerrant word of God and that the devil is always trying to find ways to deceive us with false truths. Without the Bible to guide us we will have no moral compass and there will be increased violence and evil around the world.

Me: You say that evolution cannot be true yet almost every expert in the world has concluded it is. Also there are many lines of evidence which anyone can understand which show evolution is an accurate theory to describe the variety of life on Earth. The age of the world cannot possibly be that short and I can show you evidence from geology, biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and many other areas of science to show it is almost 14 billion years. The time light has spent travelling from distance galaxies shows this, for example. Let’s get these fact-based claims out of the way before we move on to the other stuff.

Fundy: But the Bible has been shown to be accurate, so how can it be wrong? Also there are many scientists who don’t believe in evolution or an old Earth. Here is a list of URLs for you to look at. Not following the Bible leads to you rejecting God’s offer of salvation and you just don’t want to admit his authority.

Me: The Bible is full of errors if you are prepared to accept scientific and historical evidence. For example, there is no evidence at all of major stories like Genesis, the Flood, Exodus, etc. These so-called scientists you cite are not publishing in scientific journals so I would say they are not practicing scientists. In fact most of them work at Answers in Genesis. If they are only looking in one place they will never be able to look at all the evidence. Let’s keep to facts and forget about God’s salvation for now.

Fundy: You have your facts and I have mine. Many serious researchers are religious and you cannot reject their research so easily. Also science changes all the time. Who can tell when a new theory might come along and contradict the Big Bang or evolution? You say yourself that science can never prove anything with 100% certainty, so why are you so sure that science is right and religion is wrong?

Me: Instead of just offering an opinion on who is doing science and who isn’t, we should look at a standard which is widely accepted. People who are engaged in science publish in reputable journals. Anyone who isn’t doing that isn’t really doing science. They might still be right, but based on past experience the scientific consensus is far more reliable than anything else. And you are right, we can never be 100% certain of anything, but it is still reasonable to accept a theory which is 99% likely to be at least a good approximation to the truth (like evolution), instead of one we can be 99% certain is wrong (like creation).

Fundy: You may say that but because you have no moral basis for your views they are really arbitrary. Without God to guide you and tell right from wrong, how can your views be taken seriously?

Me: Well this gets back to an old question in philosophy regarding the goodness of god. But first, let me say that using a god who probably doesn’t even exist as the basis of your morality seems worse than admitting that we really don’t even have a basis. And even if we pretend that your god does exist, how do we know he is good? Is it because he says so? And if your god is good, is he good because he’s god, or is he god because he’s good? In other words if we know he’s good then there must be some external criterion to judge that against, in which case why do we need a god anyway? And if whatever he does is good because he’s god then that seems a dangerous view to take because any dictator could make that claim.

Fundy: Wait, what? We know God is good because that’s one of the reasons we know he’s the one true God. Can you not see the logic in this?

Me: All I can see is a circular argument: God is good because he’s God. How do we know he’s God? Because he’s good. How do we know he’s good? Because he’s God.

Fundy: You know, that is a ridiculous simplification of a position that theologians have been debating for centuries. Do you really believe you have the answer to such a deep and meaningful problem?

Me: Well, yes. I think it really is that simple. The only reason it becomes complex is because many people want to reach a conclusion that supports the existence of a god. If they just followed the evidence they would see that it’s really quite simple: that there is no good reason to believe a god exists.

Fundy: The Bible talks about people like you who use false logic to try to lead believers away from the truth. You do realise that you are risking eternal damnation for your excessive pride and inability to accept the authority of God, don’t you?

Me: I know that according to the narrative of the New Testament your god prefers to inflict people who refuse to accept his dominance with eternal torture. This is the same god who is advertised as being the “God of love” and who has a prophet (Jesus) who preaches understanding and acceptance. This seems somewhat contradictory to me.

Fundy: God gives you the choice of believing in him or not. If you don’t accept his offer you deserve all you get. He sacrificed his son so that you could have this hope of salvation, yet you refuse to take it.

Me: It’s not a choice I make. I simply cannot believe your god exists. Should I pretend to believe when I really don’t? Would God not know that I’m not being honest with him? And if your god wants me to believe in him why doesn’t he make his presence more obvious? Why do I have to rely on faith which I cannot force myself to do that?

Fundy: His presence is obvious to most of us. Why do you think that most people in the world are Christians?

Me: Actually, they’re not. Only a third of the population identify as Christians and even then that is purely a matter of their societal norms. You are a Christian because that is the history of the country you were born in. If you were born in India you would almost certainly be a Hindu. If you were born in Iraq you would be a Muslim. It seems that the god you follow depends on your culture, not on which (if any) god really exists.

Fundy: Well you seem to have convinced yourself that these false beliefs are true. I have tried to show you the truth but your pride prevents you from accepting it. Don’t complain when you end up in Hell.

Me: Am I a bad person? Have I been guilty of any terrible crimes? I donate to charities, I am a productive member of my society, I don’t harm any other people. Why do I deserve eternal damnation from this “loving God” of yours?

Fundy: God is just, and he is only doing what you deserve. It is not for me or you to judge whether he is right or wrong – he is God and can do whatever he likes.

Me: So a person who spends his whole life torturing, killing, etc and then accepts Jesus as his saviour shortly before dying goes to heaven, but a person who spends his life doing good, but cannot accept the teaching of your religion because there is no evidence, suffers forever. If that is how your god works then, even if he did exist, I would not accept him.

Fundy: And there’s the proof that you are evil.

Me: OK, let’s leave it there. Thanks for the discussion.

As you can see, in the fictitious example above (but one based on real experience) the fundy isn’t converted on the spot, but I would hope that amongst the points I made: that the evidence is against him, that logic is against him, and that an understanding of basic fairness and morality is against him; there might be something to make him a little bit less certain than he was.

Or, maybe, he might exhibit the backfire effect and just “double-down” on his beliefs because they are shown to be probably untrue. But the three pronged attack makes that less likely because I have found that the final argument (the unfairness of God’s punishment) often gets through to people when the more rational points don’t.

Whatever the end effect is, debating this way is fun, and any progress – no matter how small – is OK with me.

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Don’t Take it Seriously

September 12, 2017 2 comments

They say that people who cannot laugh at themselves leave the job for someone else. I think there is a lot of truth in that idea because too many people take themselves, and their beliefs, far too seriously, and they don’t usually look good as a result.

In the end, most everyday issues which people get upset and very serious about are really unbelievably trivial. As an amateur astronomer and science enthusiast I know enough about the universe as a whole (or maybe even the multiverse) to know that practically everything that people take so seriously is nothing more than the tiniest, most frivolous absurdity when you look at the big picture.

To provide examples I would like to pick on some of my usual targets: managers and other bureaucrats, and religious people.

Recently I commented that a good test for Muslims who would like to move to New Zealand to live would be to have them prove that they don’t take their religion too seriously by eating a pork sausage. That was deliberately provocative, because eating pork is haram (forbidden) by the Quran, except in extreme circumstances such as starvation.

Why would I want to impose such an offensive (according to some people) test? Well, I wouldn’t really, of course, because it was a rhetorical point I was trying to make, rather than a serious one, but this does show how a non-serious point can be effective. Maybe a better test would be to have them have a laugh at a cartoon featuring the prophet Mohammed. Yes, I’m only somewhat more serious about that.

But why have a test at all? Well, people who have extreme views on religion tend to be dangerous. They might be more likely to carry out terrorist acts, for example, because despite the protestations of the politically-correct left, religion is the major motivating factor for most terrorists.

And even if their serious religious “philosophy” doesn’t motivate them to wanting to blow themselves up, along with whatever other innocent people might be in range, it might still encourage them towards other regressive ideas, such as being against equality for women, wanting to punish homosexuals, or wanting to enforce their primitive social standards on others.

Naturally, I would not want anyone to think that this process would stop at Islam. Extremist Christians would also need to be vetted by a similar process. I have plenty of “offensive” cartoons featuring Jesus that they could have a little laugh at. For example: Jesus is hanging on his cross, after a while he dies and the Romans dangle him on strings from the cross like a puppet and reanimate him, people see this and think Jesus has risen from the dead, and the Romans think it’s hilarious!

And it could go beyond religion, too. For example, Apple zealots, like me, could be challenged by having to laugh at a cartoon of Jony Ive making some pretentious pronouncement about his design philosophy (I just Googled that and there are plenty out there).

Many might say that an “offensive” computer cartoon hardly rates at a similar level to an “offensive” religious one, but I disagree. If someone takes their religion more seriously than I take good design of computer technology then they are taking it too seriously, and that’s my whole point. After all, their religion isn’t actually true, so treating it with a bit less sincerity seems entirely sensible.

I know religious people who I like to gently and respectfully debate regarding their beliefs, and I expect to get the same back again. If someone wants to criticise me based on my “beliefs” (I am atheist, pro-science, liberal but anti-political correctness, pro-Apple) then that’s fine – I don’t take it too seriously, at least as long as they don’t.

When I look at the latest HST image of the universe and see thousands of galaxies in a small area of sky smaller than the Moon, and I realise there are hundreds of billions of stars (and presumably hundreds of billions of planets, and probably life, and maybe intelligent life, and just possibly some civilisations far more advanced than ours) in each one, then it’s pretty hard to take the inane assertions of any religion seriously.

It’s also hard to take any debate on what the best type of computer is seriously, it’s hard to take any pathetic rules and regulations created by bureaucrats seriously… hey, let’s just take this to the logical conclusion: you cannot take anything seriously.

So lighten up everyone. We live in a magnificent universe and our problems, thoughts, and beliefs are of no consequence at all, really. Why not just accept the obvious absurdity of human existence and not take things so seriously.

Shades of Grey

September 6, 2017 Leave a comment

When I decided to title this blog post “Shades of Grey” I first Googled the phrase to make sure I had the meaning correct. Of course, about 99% of the hits were about the movie “50 Shades of Grey” which I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised about given the power of pop culture. But, of course, I’m using it in the traditional way: to mean that many things cannot be simply seen as good or bad, or black or white, because there are always shades of grey.

So after the disappointment of discovering that I am not discussing the movie the natural question the reader might ask is: exactly what am I on about this time?

Just that too many people like to categorise every person, every organisation, every belief system as either good or bad, when they really should be assigning a shade of grey instead. So instead of calling a political movement (for example) evil, they should say something like mostly bad but with a few good characteristics too. I really believe there is nothing in this world that is wholly evil or entirely good.

But there is a corollary to this idea which is perhaps even more important. That is that two things which might seem to occupy the “darker” end of the spectrum cannot be classified as equally bad. To use the colour metaphor: they’re not both black, one might be really dark grey and the other mid-grey.

At this point I should be more specific. The one I want to use, because I have been guilty of falling into this trap myself, is to equate two sides in a conflict as being equally bad because they both have done bad things.

For example, I have heard some people say that the US was as bad as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, because of the many deaths from US air strikes in the Iraq War. Or similarly, that the US is as bad as the Taliban because they both have been guilty of causing the death of civilians in Afghanistan. Or to take it even further, that the Allies were as bad as the Nazis in World War II because of some of the more controversial actions like the bombing of Dresden.

Many people might look at these examples and scoff, saying that they see no equivalence there. That is good, but I would make two points. First, many people (especially those on the politically correct left) do see an equivalence; and second, these particular examples might not have suited your concept of morally equivalent actions but almost everyone will have something which does.

Just to make the shades of grey concept totally clear, I am not saying that the Allies were totally blameless in World War II. Many people have said that various actions (the bombing of Dresden being the most well known) might have been classified as war crimes. But while those actions were certainly far from sparkling white, they were far ahead of some Nazi’s conduct, such as the Holocaust, which were surely amongst the blackest of modern times.

An interesting contributing factor to this debate is the motivation for action. When the US is involved in a conflict it isn’t there to force people to adopt a religion, or to take over territory, or to even acquire resources. I will concede that there is an element of economic benefit in some cases, and in others getting involved in a conflict would be uncharitably seen as a political distraction, but these are lesser evils than the motivation of ISIS or most other opposing groups.

So saying that the US is as bad as ISIS because sometimes US drone strikes kill innocent civilians just like ISIS suicide bombers do, is missing the point. If the US could perform strikes against military targets with no collateral damage I think most people would say they would do that. But ISIS makes a deliberate effort to kill civilians as part of its military strategy.

Sure, either way innocent people are dead, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the two actions are equivalent. Killing innocent people accidentally from a drone strike is bad, but killing them deliberately using suicide bombers is worse according to any reasonable moral code.

If you have got this far and are still saying “well, duh” because everything I have said so far is obvious then that’s good, but I can tell you I meet a lot of people who would not accept any of the above.

Here’s a few more examples of people, or groups, or actions which tend to be seen by some groups as obviously black and white (good and bad) or as equally bad when there is one which is genuinely worse than the other…

The Israeli security forces versus groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian conflict. In this case the Israelis are far from innocent but at least there tactics are more moral than those used by the opposing forces.

Donald Trump versus Barack Obama. I cannot justify Trump’s aversion to dealing with facts, but I also find the constant demonisation of him to be tiresome. I’m sure there are some things he has done that the PC left would approve of. Maybe closing down the TPP would be a good example.

Poor people who commit welfare benefit fraud versus rich individuals and corporations who engage in tax evasion and avoidance. I don’t give either side a free pass although I think it is more morally justifiable to commit fraud to feed your family than it is to avoid paying a fair amount of tax just so that rich shareholders and directors can get even richer.

It’s just too easy to assign a good or bad, pass or fail, black or white to everything, usually based on existing political preferences, or in-group habits, rather than a genuine analysis of what is really happening. I think from now on people should assign a score instead. This will encourage a more nuanced view of the situation being evaluated.

So Allies versus Nazis: 90:10, George Bush versus Saddam Hussein 60:40. the US versus ISIS 80:20, etc. Those numbers are just first guesses and I could be persuaded to change them by a good argument. But the point is that it’s a lot easier to adjust some numbers than to change from a good versus bad situation.

So yes, it’s all about shades of grey, and there are at least 50 of them.

The Hard Problem

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently, while purchasing a few items at a wholesaler I was asked what I was listening to on my phone (because I had my Apple earphones on). I told the person I was listening to a podcast, and when that got a blank response I explained it was like a recorded radio program automatically downloaded from the internet, and that this one was by a philosopher and was mainly about politics. I was asked “are you listening to parliament?” and decided it was best to not try to explain further by making a joke like: “I wouldn’t listen to that because I want to retain what small scraps of sanity I still have.”

But it did emphasise how little most people know or care about many of the things that interest me, including some of the most difficult and obscure problems in science and philosophy today. Now, please don’t think I’m being elitist or arrogant because I know that I am no expert on any of this stuff, I just find it interesting, and knowing more about it is part of my aim to be good at everything but brilliant at nothing!

More recently I listened to another podcast in the same series which dealt with a subject which exactly of the type I mentioned above. That is the hard problem of consciousness. What is consciousness, where does it come from, and what else possesses it, apart from me?

Before I continue I will say what I mean by consciousness here. Basically it is the feeling that I (and presumably others) have that I am an individual, that I have some continuity of existence from the past, that I have some form of free will (or at least the illusion of that) to control the world to some extent. Where does this come from?

The idea which I find most compelling, and the one which I think is generally accepted by the majority of scientists is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the processes which occur inside a brain of sufficient complexity. But some people, especially some philosophers and a lot of theologians, believe it is better explained through dualism. That is the idea that there is something beyond the physical processes of thought occurring in the brain. Maybe that there is a “soul” (not necessarily in the religious sense) which is in final control of the physical processes.

At this stage, all the neuroscience I have heard of gives me no reason to think that anything beyond the purely material exists. But I want to ignore the good, solid stuff like that and consider some idle speculation and thought experiments instead!

Imagine my personal identity, my mind, my consciousness is an emergent property of my brain processes. What would happen if an exact copy of me was made (in something like a Star Trek transporter which copied the original person instead of moving him). Where would my consciousness them lie? The copy would be identical, with an identical brain and identical processes. If my thoughts arose from physical processes would I experience them in both bodies simultaneously?

Alternatively, imagine it was possible to “back up” all the information in a brain and upload it to a computer, then re-establish it after death or injury. What would happen if it was downloaded into a different brain? What would happen if it ran on an artificial brain in the computer itself?

Another disturbing question is how complex does a brain need to be before it becomes conscious? It certainly seems that many animals are self-aware. Surely chimps, dolphins, etc have similar levels of consciousness to humans. What about cats and dogs? Rats and mice? Flies? Where does it end?

And if consciousness arises through the processing power of a brain, can it also arise in an artificial brain, like a sufficiently complex and properly programmed computer? Or does it only arise in “naturally arising” entities. What about in an alien? What if that alien evolved a silicon brain very similar to a computer?

We know that our cells are constantly being replaced, don’t we? Well no, that isn’t exactly true. Different cells have different “life spans”, from a few days up to apparently the life of the individual. Significantly, it is some types of brain neurons which are never replaced. Is it these cells which give us our individual identity?

Now let’s imagine that duality is a better explanation. There are some anecdotes indicating that consciousness apparently exists independently of the body. There are out of body experiences, various phenomena such as ESP, reincarnation, and near death experiences. Some of these seem quite compelling but they have never been confirmed by any rigorous scientific study.

Maybe the brain is just an interface between the non-physical seat of consciousness and the body. If the brain is damaged or dies the consciousness still exists but has no way to interact with the world. It would be difficult to distinguish between that and the emergent phenomenon hypothesis I outlined above so maybe this is one of those theories which is “not even wrong”.

Finally there is computation and maths. The way maths seems to reflect and even predict reality has been a puzzle since the article called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” was published almost 50 years ago. Some physicists have noted that reality seems to almost arise from a form of computation, which seems to explain the effectiveness of maths.

So now we seem to be getting back to the idea that the universe might be a simulation (see my blog post titled “Life’s Just a Game” from 2016-07-06). If it is then the universe was created by someone (or something). Would that thing be a god? And if the individual entities are “just” part of a simulation do they have any less moral rights as a result?

Maybe all of this stuff is “not even wrong” and maybe it is pointless to even speculate about it, but sometimes doing pointless things is OK, just as long as we don’t take it too seriously.

So I think I will continue to listen to philosophical musings rather than the rather more mundane business of politics I hear in parliament. Actually, I think there is room for both, because politics is also a subject I include in my “good at everything” strategy. And one thing is clear: in most subjects being above average isn’t difficult!

Captain’s Log

August 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Captain’s Log, Mission Day 30476.32

At 0.30 today we deactivated the star drive and approached the planet.

As our astronomers had already discovered, it is a rocky world orbiting a yellow dwarf sun. Compared to our own world it is just slightly smaller and hotter, and its sun is remarkably similar to ours, so it might almost seem like home to us.

The mysterious presence of molecular oxygen in the atmosphere has been confirmed by our observations but we are still too far away to discover what it source is. Whether it turns out to be some complex inorganic chemical reaction or the side effect of life we cannot yet tell.

I don’t need to tell you what a discovery it would be if this planet does have life, because in all the thousands of planets we have visited, all have been barren. Maybe we are the only ones, or maybe we have just been unlucky in our search so far. After all, there are hundreds of billions of planets in this galaxy alone and the few thousand we have visited is just a tiny start in exploring them. But I will end my speculation here because tomorrow we might know.

Day 30477.27

The detail visible on the planet’s surface is increasing rapidly as we approach. This final stage of space travel is frustrating, of course, because inside a solar system we cannot use the star drive and must revert to conventional propulsion systems.

The feature which dominates the planet’s surface is a huge impact crater which we calculate was formed relatively recently. If there was life on this planet it would likely have been virtually wiped out by this disaster.

A spectrographic analysis will be complete later today, and that should reveal the presence of the molecules of life if they exist here. We should soon know the answer to the question we came here for.

Day 30477.34

The spectrography is complete and we are almost 100% certain there is life on the planet. A molecule which is very similar to one used by plant life on our own planet has been detected in great quantities. It seems that all of the oceans (which cover over 60% of the planet’s surface) and a lot of the land contain some sort of organism which can convert sunlight to energy and release oxygen in the process. This explains the excess oxygen in the atmosphere.

Day 30478.72

We have put the ship into orbit around the mysterious planet and our detailed observations are now revealing something which has produced a lot of disagreement among our scientists. There are apparently symmetric structures over many parts of the planet which seem artificial. They are covered with many years of dust and debris from the impact but some of our more radical researchers think they are the remains of great structures built by an intelligent species which one lived here.

We are almost ready to send a party down to investigate these in more detail. This is potentially the greatest discovery of all time. Initially we coud barely hope to find any life here but now we are serious about the possibility of finding intelligent life.

Day 30479.37

The unthinkable has happened. Our landing party has confirmed that the structures are artificial. There seems to be no other explanation except they were built by an intelligence with technology approaching our own in sophistication. We now need to establish whether they survived the asteroid impact.

Day 30479.82

Most of the land surface of the planet has been devastated, but some life in the oceans has survived. We have discovered a massive variety of different species there, a few of which have some level of intelligence, but there is no sign of technology.

Day 30480.21

The exploration of the alien structures (it seems obvious they were cities where large numbers – perhaps millions – of the aliens lived) continues, and we have made a very significant discovery which might allow us to explore the history of the planet. We have found various objects which seem to be storage devices. Our best technicians will work on these and if we can read them we might be able to translate whatever information they contain.

Day 30480.69

The storage devices appear to contain electronic circuits based on silicon technology. We should be able to adapt some of our own computers to read them because they are similar to a technology we have used recently before moving to photonic storage.

Day 30481.11

We have cracked the storage devices! They contain data stored in an 8 bit code which maps to an alphabet. It seems that the symbols in this alphabet form groups which correspond to words in a language. The language is very obscure and is likely something which has changed and become more complex over a long time period. We will continue to work on decoding it.

Day 30482.48

The language decoding is progressing rapidly and we now know a lot about the society that existed there. A lot of what I am going to say here will seem shocking, but our best language experts and anthropologists agree it is what they material we have discovered reveals, and fits in with the physical evidence we see on almost the entire surface of the planet.

The intelligent inhabitants of the planet were called “humans” and the planet was called “Earth”. There were millions of different species on the planet before the impact but 90% of them, including all of the land species, were wiped out.

We cannot find any signs that any of the humans survived, but they did have the technology available to live almost indefinitely in the oceans so some might survive there. They also had space technology sufficient to travel around the solar system, but did not have the capability for interstellar travel.

The humans had a society which had many admirable characteristics. The planet was divided into hundreds of areas called “countries” which had slightly different types of inhabitants, different leadership, economic systems, etc. Most of the countries had a system to choose a leader where the population voted and the most successful person became leader for a period of time. Unfortunately this system became corrupted and the leaders were rarely very competent.

Most shockingly there was constant competition between these countries and this often extended to organised combat between different factions, often resulting in numerous deaths. Reasons for these “wars” included competition over resources, land ownership, and even differences in opinion over philosophy, including (most bizarrely) an amazingly common system known as “religion” where the humans became believers in various supernatural entities. Why they maintained these bizarre beliefs and how one myth was chosen over another requires further study.

You can see at this point that humans exhibited a strange combination of quite advanced science and technology and surprisingly primitive beliefs. It would not be uncommon, for example, for a believer in a supernatural entity who espoused pacifism to use an advanced combat machine of some sort to kill thousands of his opponents who believed in a slightly different deity. Clearly our anthropologists have a lot of work to do in this area.

But finally in this initial report on the history of humans I must discuss the most obvious question, and the one which is both hardest to understand and the most tragic to contemplate. That is, if the humans had the technology available, why did they not divert the asteroid, avoid the impact in some other way, or even move some of their people to another planet?

The initial evidence seems to indicate that they were too distracted with other things, especially their economic system. A lot of resource and effort was applied to things which make no sense, such as persuading people to buy unhealthy drinks which had no benefit at all, or paying participants in entertainment events which no intelligent person could take seriously. Yet all this time completely inadequate effort was put into protecting the planet from obvious threats.

When the asteroid was first seen it was already too late. A small investment in monitoring the sky for asteroids and in the technology required to divert them would have saved the planet. Yet they seemed to believe that other things were more important.

As captain, I shouldn’t really offer a value judgement on what happened here on Earth, but it is so disappointing to find a spark of intelligence, so rare in this universe, has now gone, completely unnecessarily. And I have to say that, given the way they acted, maybe it was for the best.

Forget About Growth

August 23, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently read a brief report on how an individual could make the greatest contribution to minimising climate change. This has been a controversial subject for many years now but the need to act is now more accepted.

So it seems that the world is gradually coming around to the idea that climate change is real and – even more gradually – to the idea that we need to do something about it. Even Donald Trump’s latest opinion is that is something that needs to be acted on, but he would prefer not to it through Paris Agreement.

So people who don’t accept climate change as real are probably increasingly irrelevant, and the discussion on what to do about it is where the real conflict now happens. Unfortunately it is now too late to fix the problem relatively painlessly and only difficult options remain. So the people who refused to accept reality in the past have now got us to the point where they now don’t want to act because it is too hard, but that is only because of their past obstructiveness.

But this post isn’t primarily yet another lecture on climate change. I like to tackle the really big subjects so this goes beyond the biggest problem facing modern society and looks at the cause of it, and most of the other major problems we have.

Getting back to the report: it listed several actions an individual could take and showed how many tonnes of CO2 emissions per year that would save. Upgrading to low energy light bulbs would save 0.1 tonnes, recycling would save about 0.2, going vegetarian about 0.5, buying only green energy 1.5, avoiding a trans-Atlantic air trip 1.6, and having one fewer child 60 tonnes.

The methodology used to generate these numbers could be debated, but the overall message is still relevant: that the real source of most of our problems is that there are too many people! When having one less person in the world saves six times more CO2 than all the usual energy saving efforts combined this should be obvious.

There is nothing inherently wrong with burning fossil fuels, we are just burning too much. A certain amount of rain forest clearance is sustainable but it is just happening too quickly. The environment can cope with some level of pollution but not the levels we generate now. Famine primarily happens because there are too many people for what the land can produce in food. Many conflicts happen because populations exceed the levels a country can cope with.

I can remember that a few decades back population control was one of the most commonly discussed issues in environmentalism but now it is hardly heard. What has changed?

That’s hard to know, for sure, but I think a major factor is capitalism’s constant need for growth. We have seen this everywhere. Unless business is growing we have a recession. The idea that the economy might have reached a point where is it sufficiently healthy and we don’t need any further growth just seems impossible to contemplate.

Growth in itself isn’t always problematic – although it often is – but the way that growth often happens is. Here in New Zealand it has mainly been achieved through increased population . We keep hearing that our economy is healthy and growing but, of course, it isn’t. Measures, such as per capita GDP, which calculate the economic contribution for each person, have not changed, and some have actually gone backwards.

So there is no growth except in population, and increased population is causing many social and environmental problems, including poverty, homelessness, and traffic congestion.

New Zealand has a small enough population that even quite significant percentage increases can be absorbed without causing a total disaster, but the same phenomenon in other countries which already have large populations is a bigger problem, and each country affects all the others.

Water pollution is a major issue in New Zealand. Why do we have that? Because we have too many dairy cows, and the reason we have those is that there is a good market for milk powder to feed all the Chinese people who are suddenly participating in the global economy. And the effects of overpopulation is much worse in India and some other countries.

We have too many cows because farmers can make more money by cramming more cows into land which previously was not used for dairying. They are prepared to do this while destroying our environment because, in capitalism, too much is never enough.

There are other causes of overpopulation, of course. I have already blamed capitalism so you might not be surprised to hear the next culprit I will accuse is religion! There is no doubt that religious beliefs such as an aversion to birth control and a need to have large families to increase the number of members of your particular church are a problem (yes, I’m talking about you Catholicism and Islam).

And to make matters even worse, the increased birth rate because of this is often in exactly the countries which are already struggling with famine, civil war, and other significant issues.

We need a bit more rationality in this world. I don’t mean I want to have everyone walking around like robots or Mr Spock, I just mean we could do without the more extreme cases of irrationality which cause a lot of harm to society in general. And the pursuit of growth for no good reason would be a great place to start.

A Ponzi Scheme

August 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Everyone has heard of Ponzi schemes, right? If not, here’s the dictionary definition: a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a non-existent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors. It is named after Charles Ponzi who set up elaborate money-making ventures based on the system in the early 1900s.

Typically the first few people involved in the scheme promise to pay huge returns to the “investors” and when these are demanded they are paid from the initial investments made from other investors. It can never last, of course, but the original perpetrators usually try to get out before it all turns bad.

A related scheme is known as a “pyramid scheme”. In these the early “investors” are paid a fee by those they recruit and a lesser amount by those the recruiters recruit, etc. It works as long as new people are recruited, but the “deeper” into the scheme you are the less you will get and the more you will be paying those at the peak.

A unique feature of these schemes is that the organisation or individual running the scheme doesn’t actually need to do anything apart from run the scheme. They don’t need to sell anything or provide any service, for example. The scheme is entirely about shuffling money from one place to another (generally from the “suckers” who sign up late to those who were involved in the initial setup of the scheme).

As we all know, there are some pyramid schemes which also sell products (I’m sure we can all name some) but that is more or less just a cover for the dishonest underlying structure.

I was thinking about this recently and realised that there are many aspects of our modern economic system which make it look like just another Ponzi scheme. The economy only works well while there is “growth” or “increased efficiency or productivity”, yet these aims are totally unsustainable in the long term, and even during the short period that they are sustainable they are often undesirable.

In New Zealand a major election issue is immigration. New Zealand allegedly has a healthy and growing economy – and some stats support this view – yet the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they are doing well. How is this possible? Well basically it gets back to the fact that this alleged “growth” we see in our “rock star economy” is all fake. It is primarily due to increased population, provided by immigration, and no real progress has been made at all.

Unfortunately for the politicians supporting this scheme, it cannot last. Like most rock stars our economy will crash and burn when the excesses of its existence overtake any worthwhile contribution it is making. Eventually everyone will realise they are just being ripped off by a giant Ponzi scheme. But by that time the people in government who have created this situation will probably be gone.

Of course I should point out two things here. First, a pyramid scheme is probably a better description that a Ponzi for the economy, but Ponzi just sounds cooler so it better serves my rhetorical narrative; and second, the economy isn’t a pure Ponzi or pyramid scheme and almost everyone would admit that it works well in some ways.

Despite the obvious and numerous faults in capitalism, for example, it does produce the goods and services the First World needs to maintain its lavish lifestyle. As I have pointed out many times in the past, the system is grossly inefficient, poorly focussed, and generally corrupt, but I would never claim it doesn’t have some good points as well, especially for the original investors in the Ponzi or the people at the top of the pyramid (AKA the 1%).

But it will fail because indefinite growth is impossible and because the 99% who support the people at the top of the pyramid will eventually catch on to what’s really happening and rebel. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Like all Ponzi schemes it will fail and it will probably happen through catastrophic collapse rather than a careful restructuring.

When it happens it won’t be pretty, just like poor old Charles Ponzi’s slow and painful decline and death after all his wonderful and elaborate schemes failed.