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What Were They Thinking?

February 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Imagine you are part of a military power in a foreign country as a result of your country invading it. Now imagine that while you are there your military is responsible for many civilian deaths and many well publicised acts of intolerance and disrespect. And to make matters even worse your country is the world’s greatest bastion of the dominant culture and religion and the country you are invading follows another religion. And the followers of that religion are extremely fanatical about defending it.

OK, if you have imagined all of that what would be the worst thing you could do (assuming you wanted peace and stability, of course)? Would it be to burn piles of the holy book of the culture you had invaded? Maybe there could be even worse things, but in a country which is fanatical about its beliefs that would have to be amongst the worst possible actions, wouldn’t it?

You would have to almost draw the conclusion that a mass burning of a holy book, without even an attempt at hiding the action, was a deliberate act of provocation… or maybe it’s just unbelievable incompetence. Which is worse?

I have little respect for holy books but I have even less respect for people who burn them (or any other book for that matter). I also have little respect for people who think having a few books burned is an excuse for embarking on an extended campaign of violence and murder. So in my opinion no one comes out of this sort of situation looking good.

Book burning has always symbolised repression and intolerance. Even if the reason a book is burned is logical and uncontroversial it still looks bad. And if you need to burn a holy book for practical reasons the least you could do is do it secretly!

If I followed a religion and its books were burned by my opponents I think I could use the situation in a positive way to enhance my own credibility. I would point out that my God is not bothered by the destruction of mere physical objects because he is above that. I would point out that it is the other group doing the burning who are the uncivilised barbarians. And I would say that I am a better person and will not sink to similar levels of uncivilised conduct.

But that’s not what usually happens, is it. On every side of the conflict: what were they thinking?

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How Great Thou Art

February 24, 2012 Leave a comment

I don’t like using other people’s misfortune to make political, theological, or philosophical points, especially when those points could be construed as being cynical and negative. But I have to, I really do.

How often do I see, on TV news and other sources, pictures of people thanking God for nothing in particular after a major disaster. It’s bizarre really, to see people praying and singing about how great and merciful their god is after a fatal disaster. I guess they could be thankful that they survived but what about the unnecessary suffering and deaths of others?

The most recent example was at the commemoration of the Christchurch earthquake where a large group of people sung the hymn “How Great Thou Art”. Really? They think their god is great after allowing their city to be devastated and their fellow citizens to be killed by a series of earthquakes?

Before I go any further I do have to say that many hymns, including this one, can sound quite inspiring when performed well. Many (like this one) are derived from folk tunes though, so their musical merit is independent of their religious context. Also, it’s the mindless acceptance of the message of the hymn which I find annoying.

But getting back to the ultimate interpretation of the hymn and of other acts of praise to God. What are these really saying?

Some people might say that natural disasters are, as the name suggests, natural and independent of God’s will. But if this God is so great could he not control natural disasters? How hard could it possibly be for an entity who allegedly created the whole universe? (according to the hymn: “O mighty God, when I behold the wonder. Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of thine”) Surely stopping an earthquake should be trivial.

So if God couldn’t stop the earthquakes he’s clearly not great but what if he could stop them but chose not to? Ponder these words from the hymn: “And how thou leadest all from realms up yonder, Sustaining earthly life with love benign”. Love benign? Really?

In some ways choosing not to help is much worse. In that case he may be great in some sense but probably not good. If someone is evil can they still be great? I’m sure a “great but evil” god isn’t really what the hymn is suggesting!

And the alleged sins of humans (just exactly what are they, and are they really that bad?) have always been used as a convenient excuse for God’s seeming inability to do the right thing. The hymn says: “When crushed by guilt of sin before thee kneeling, I plead for mercy and for grace and peace,” Yeah, good luck with that.

If God was punishing sinners then he chose an odd way to do it. The city he allowed to be decimated was named “Christchurch”. Could there be any other place name with a better connection to our dominant religion? And the city’s magnificent cathedral and several churches were destroyed but the Muslim mosque was left intact. Plus I didn’t hear of any places of lesser religious standing (betting establishments, pubs, brothels) being unusually badly affected. I guess God really does have a wacky sense of humour.

But then there’s the old cop out that believers sometimes use when they say that God has some higher purpose which we don’t understand, and if we could understand it we would see that the disasters he has caused, or allowed to happen, are actually an essential part of the big picture.

But as the popular advertising campaign says “yeah, right!” Does anyone really believe that? Would anyone believe it if it was an excuse used by a political leader? That’s a good question actually because maybe the answer is “yes”.

There are parallels with some political actions which promise long term gains through short term pain. The great libertarian revolution in New Zealand would be a classic example. The problem is that the long term gain never happens (at least not for the vast majority). Maybe the politicians and God are both guilty of deception.

I guess there is always hope, even though its based on a fantasy (the hymn again: “When burdens press, and seem beyond endurance, Bowed down with grief, to Him I lift my face; And then in love He brings me sweet assurance”) But I guess as one earthquake followed another the people of Christchurch were wondering when exactly this “sweet assurance” would arrive.

I think God has been let off away too easily. He needs to be held to account, just like we should hold our politicians to account. Forget the songs of praise. Maybe the New Zealand rock band, Head Like a Hole, have some more appropriate lyrics: “Glory Glory Hallelujah, just like a knife, it cut’s right through ya. Glory Glory Hallelujah, just like a lie, I see right through ya.”

Twelve Bible Errors

February 17, 2012 17 comments

In a recent religious discussion I came to the point where the accuracy of the Bible was under examination. I asked if my opponent would like to see a dozen errors on the first page so I thought that maybe it would be a good idea to actually go through the first page and find those dozen errors before I was challenged on the claim!

What actually the “first page” is will depend on the version and form of the particular Bible in question so I thought it would be easier to look at the first chapter (even though those were never in the original material the Bible was compiled from). So here is my analysis and criticism of that chapter…

Quote: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Interpretation: The Earth was the first thing created, before all other objects, such as the Sun and other stars. What “heaven” means here is debatable but also largely irrelevant because I am concentrating on the Earth.

Conclusion: The Earth has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt to be much younger than the Universe as a whole and that includes many stars and other objects. Multiple techniques involving radioactive isotope dating, study of sediments, models of solar system formation, and many others, all agree. The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old and the Universe as a whole about 13.7 billion. Many stars are far older than the Earth. The first line in the Bible is wrong, and there is no reasonable doubt.

Quote: And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Interpretation: Some people interpret this as something other than the literal interpretation of the word “light” but the consensus seems to be that that is just retrofitting the original meaning to fit the newly established facts.

Conclusion: Note that light is being created before the Sun and stars. What is this light? And why did it not exist before the Earth was formed? To say that light was formed after the Earth and before the Sun and stars is wrong beyond any reasonable doubt.

Quote: And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.

Interpretation: This clearly shows that the light mentioned above is the standard meaning of the word, confirming that it is wrong. Also, how could the light exist before it was divided from night?

Conclusion: The idea that light was created then divided from darkness is meaningless.

Quote: And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Interpretation: What the “day” is here is open to debate. Some people say it is a literal period of 24 hours, others say it is a thousand years (and reference a quote elsewhere which says a day is like a thousand years to God), and others claim it is an indeterminate amount of time.

Conclusion If the word “day” is a literal day (or even a thousand years) then it is clearly wrong because these events took far longer. If it is any fixed time it is also wrong. Even if it a totally arbitrary time then the sequence is wrong, so there is really no way out of this problem for believers.

Quote: And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

Interpretation: This clearly refers to the land areas of the Earth appearing from water which covered the whole surface of the planet.

Conclusion: The Earth was not originally covered with water. This has been established by many independent studies. The Earth was originally too hot to hold liquid water and most of the water was probably delivered through later bombardment of comets.

Quote: And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.

Interpretation: Grasses and other plants which use seed and fruit for propagation were created next.

Conclusion: All the evidence indicates this is wrong. Plants only make fruit to attract animals so why would these plants exist first? Also studies of fossils and independent gene sequencing both show that many forms of life existed billions of years before the advanced plant life mentioned here.

Quote: And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years…

Interpretation: This clearly refers to the stars which seem to be created after the Earth but before the Sun and Moon.

Conclusion: There is no doubt that stars existed before the Earth and certainly a long time before plants mentioned previously. Stars have been observed which are 10 billion light years away. Their light has been travelling for twice the age of the Earth. There is no reasonable doubt that this verse is wrong.

Quote: And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

Interpretation: This obviously refers to the Sun and Moon. The stars are also mentioned again (as if they hadn’t already been created earlier) but I will just assume this is just another example of the incredibly poor narrative quality of the Bible.

Conclusion: The Sun and Moon, and the Earth were all formed at about the same time and billions of years after the universe and oldest stars. There is little doubt that this is wrong.

Quote: And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales…

Interpretation: This is suggesting that sea life and birds were created at the same time. It also clearly mentions whales as a specific example of sea life.

Conclusion: Again the timing is all mixed up. Whales evolved billions of years after the earliest sea life. And birds are one of the newest types of life and also appeared much later (they evolved from a type of dinosaur).

Quote: And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

Interpretation: This seems to refer to life on land in general.

Conclusion: Again the sequence of the order of appearance of different types of life is hopelessly confused.

Quote: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Interpretation: What making man in God’s image means here is debated. Presumably it doesn’t literally mean a physical resemblance but we can never know for sure.

Conclusion: Evolution is a fact. Some of the details of the exact mechanisms are still being debated but evolution is what lead to humans appearing on Earth. Any suggestion otherwise is ridiculous.

Quote: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Interpretation: Again the interpretation of “image” is unknown but he created both sexes which complicates the whole issue further.

Conclusion: The whole creation sequence is mixed up beyond any hope of it ever being fixed. Not only that but the re-iteration of the myth in Genesis 2 is contradictory.

So those are my 12 errors in chapter 1. I could have looked for finer details and criticised those as well and I could have made theological or philosophical objections to a lot of this material (such as should man really have total dominion over all other life forms) but I just kept to the established scientific facts.

Anyone who thinks the Bible is a book of facts is living in a dream world. It’s full of errors, it’s badly written, and it’s largely useless as a guide to modern life in any form. But that’s exactly what we would expect from a book composed of various myths created by primitive desert nomads thousands of years ago.

Peter, Dunning, and Dilbert

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

A while back I blogged about the “Peter Principle” and how it explains the poor state of management and leadership in modern society. But after reading a bit more about the subject it now seems that things are even worse than I imagined!

There’s another effect called the “Dunning–Kruger Effect” which is also relevant. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia: “a cognitive bias in which the unskilled suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities.”

So not only do people get promoted to positions they are incompetent in but they are so bad that they don’t even see their own deficiencies. I often wonder whether most managers realise they are useless and just pretend that they are really valuable but the situation is probably even worse: they genuinely think they are competent!

Now I’m sure we can all think of some managers and other leaders who are actually quite good at their job. Maybe we are even so lucky that we can think of some who are exceptional. But in my own experience and in the anecdotes I hear from others it’s clear that the vast majority are useless. In fact it’s even worse than that: they are worse than useless, they actually have negative value.

There’s yet another related effect which is slightly less serious but also has an element of truth. That’s the Dilbert Principle which states: leadership is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow. In other words leadership is a way of moving useless people out of the areas where things actually get done.

The Dilbert Principle was a satirical observation by Scott Adams, the cartoonist who creates the Dilbert cartoon which usually deals with petty office politics. While his work is intended to be humorous it is often disturbingly close to real life.

Finally there’s the well-known paper titled “The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study” by Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, Cesare Garofalo from the University of Catania in Italy which used computational modeling to show that common methodologies to decide on promotion produce a worse outcome than choosing people at random.

Surely it must be clear to any thinking person that current management systems are at best deeply flawed and maybe more realistically grossly corrupt and only capable of enabling the mediocre and incompetent holding back progress which the rest of us might otherwise be capable of.

I’m often asked why I am still “just” a consultant/programmer after working at the same place for so long. The answer is I have too much self-respect to join a management structure I have little confidence in. So I’m not one of those who have been promoted to a position I’m incompetent at. I know I’m good at what I do so why would I change that?

The worst thing is that people like me have no chance of gaining greater remuneration or control because most organisations mistakenly think that moving into management is the only real way to advance. And I would never be offered the opportunity anyway because there’s no need to invoke the Dilbert Principle to move me into a place where I can be kept out of the way of the others.

If the Dilbert principle worked as described things would actually be OK but because of the Dunning–Kruger Effect giving managers delusions of adequacy they occasionally actually try to do something and do get in the way of the rest of us, so the system is far from perfect.

Given all that I have said above there might seem little hope of rescue from this self-imposed quandary. But it seems that when you look back at history something always happens to disrupt incompetent and immoral systems. Soviet Russia fell suddenly, the Arab Spring is in progress, and the Occupy Movement is the first sign that the current system will not last much longer.

So really you’ve just got to hope that things will improve, even though it often seems unlikely when you experience the current poor state of leadership and the apathy amongst the majority in modern society.

Am I Deluded?

February 15, 2012 2 comments

Occasionally I write a blog entry examining my own beliefs and opinions and you, the reader, might be excused for wondering whether I have some sort of insecurity regarding these subjects. If I was confident my worldview and conclusions on different subjects were genuinely realistic then why would I need to question them periodically?

It’s a good question but I would say that it is only people who do continually question their own beliefs who can maintain a genuinely realistic view of the world because otherwise they would be no better than the people they criticise. So in some ways it is the people who are most doubtful who are the most likely to be correct, an odd situation but one which makes sense when you think about it.

I listen to and read a lot of skeptical material every week and the thing that I consistently notice is the certainty the opponents of rationality have that their view is correct. By “opponents of rationality” here I mean people like religious and political conservatives, libertarians, and science deniers.

I’m not saying I disagree with everything these groups believe (especially the libertarians who I do share some beliefs with) but in general I would find myself disagreeing more than agreeing.

So let’s get down to the specific issues where I should be continually reconsidering my position.

First on the list is the easy stuff. The areas where non-rational beliefs, such as religion, disagree with science, the most obvious example being evolution. I admit that science can be wrong and I make sure I catch up with all the latest news on the subject of evolution. But I often wonder whether I need to because evolution is rock solid. There is no real doubt about it and it would be totally astonishing if we ever had any real reason to doubt it. Still, that’s probably the way fundamentalists feel about creation – and they’re wrong – so I continue to look.

Next is the stuff which is fairly certain but still far from settled regarding the details. The most obvious example here is global warming. I think that most of the doubters now agree that the world is warming but the denial has now shifted to the cause of that phenomenon. And that is genuinely difficult to establish with any certainty. But the only new evidence doubting the consensus involves the details rather than the basics, so I think it is still safe to strongly support the reality of anthropogenic global warming while still remaining open to new evidence.

Continuing on the spectrum of doubt we come to historical (or allegedly historical) events. The classic example here is the existence of Jesus. I have said in the past that I doubt whether he existed at all but I am swinging more to the opinion that a person (or several people) existed which the stories are based on. I see no reason to take the supernatural stories: the star, resurrection, etc, seriously though, so the opinion that the Jesus of the Bible didn’t exist is still quite realistic.

Finally there is the stuff, mostly political, which I am most unsure about. I am fairly well to the left politically but I agree that it is difficult to really evaluate the relative merits of various political ideologies. It’s more important to look at each issue on its merits and respond based on what makes sense rather than applying a standard political response. So I usually disagree with my political opposition because they usually do follow a standard ideology.

For example I completely reject the idea that privatisation, austerity measures, globalisation, etc are the best answers to our political problems. In some cases they might be, but I see no evidence that the right are carefully considering individual cases before they apply these measures. Instead they simply prescribe them no matter what the problem might be.

So it seems to me that when my opponents say that my arguments are no better than theirs, just different, they are wrong. My arguments are better than theirs because I constantly apply skeptical methodology to them, just like I apply it to my opponents. And the argument that skeptical methodology is no better than whatever methodology they use (such as faith) is just untrue. Sure, you can argue that using a particular methodology to justify that same methodology is a circular argument but I think reverting to common sense can circumvent that criticism.

It’s just intrinsically more sensible to believe the results of objective tests rather than accepting things on faith. It’s more sensible to accept the opinion of experts rather than individuals who have no experience in the area under discussion. And it’s better to question everything, especially the things you desperately want to be true.

If I am deluded I would never be able to appreciate that fact. That’s part of the process of delusion. But at least I am aware of the standard mechanisms of delusion (believing in conspiracy theories, accepting what’s in a old book before what’s in a scientific paper, giving a preferred myth a “free pass” while applying harsh criticism to the similar beliefs of others, etc) so I hope I have at least minimised that possibility!

In Support of Piracy

February 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Is it OK to break the law in a situation you consider unjust? That is a question which I have covered a few times in the past and my conclusion has been that people should do what they consider is the right thing whether that agrees with the law or not. It’s a philosophy I follow and it can be controversial, of course.

There are two considerations which need to be applied here though. The first is that most laws are reasonably fair and because we have to peacefully co-exist with other people we should usually follow them just so that society works smoothly. And the second is that if an individual does choose to ignore the law they should expect there to be consequences. So breaking a law might lead to a person being punished but that doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person.

In fact breaking the law is sometimes the only moral thing to do, and those people who do it should be admired rather than vilified. A recent local case involving a doctor helping his terminally ill mother to die peacefully (at her own request) lead to him being found guilty of a crime, but most people (although certainly not all) admired him for his courage instead of condemning him for breaking the law.

The same applies to many legal issues associated with the internet. To many people piracy is a reaction to a perceived injustice, and while some activities of this sort are possibly illegal (the actual legal status of some of them is uncertain) they aren’t always necessarily wrong.

The recent situation where New Zealand police attacked the mansion of internet “entrepreneur” Kim Dotcom – jumping out of helicopters and brandishing automatic weapons like a bunch of crazed ninjas who have watched too many American crime movies – is a classic case. If there was ever a case of an over-reaction and a huge waste of police time and money, this was it.

It seems certain there was pirated material on Megaupload’s servers but there is similar material on many other servers around the world. And why do people feel the need to pirate material of this sort anyway? Because the way things work now is unfair and set up almost entirely for the benefit of big corporations. I think most people would prefer to buy movies and music at a reasonable price, in a reasonable way, and knowing that a reasonable proportion of the price goes back to the original artist, but none of this happens with the existing model.

The recording industry, instead of trying to use the internet to give the consumer a fair deal, simply tries to block the inevitable changes by lobbying governments (mainly in the US but even here in New Zealand too) to make laws which support their antiquated business model.

But attempts at blocking piracy haven’t been conspicuously successful anyway. When a law of that type was introduced here the amount of peer to peer traffic on the internet in New Zealand dropped significantly but the amount of secure proxy traffic increased, showing people just bypassed detection by using different technologies.

The evidence is that people will buy material if it is priced and distributed fairly. Apple’s music and app stores are a classic example but there are even better models where large corporations are bypassed completely. An American comedian recently made a million dollars by distributing his work on the internet. The file was available for free but he appealed to peoples’ sense of fairness and asked for a $5 payment. It obviously worked!

Try buying a DVD and compare the experience. First, you must find a store stocking it, then you need to find one which is the right region (is that region system the stupidest idea ever or what?), then you have to pay a price which means only a small fraction goes to the orignal artist, then you must sit through some tedious message about piracy before watching the movie.

Do the corporations not realise that the only people seeing those anti-piracy messages are legitimate buyers because the pirates always strip them out! How unbelievably stupid can they be? But that’s the problem: these people are both clueless and immoral. They sort of deserve to have their business destroyed.

The argument that artists, such as musicians and movie makers, lose because of piracy is partly true because there will be some material not being purchased that they would get payment for otherwise. But it’s not really that simple.

Assuming that every pirated movie represents a loss of income – as the industry has suggested – is dishonest. Most of those pirated movies would never have been bought by the person who pirated them so they represent no real loss.

And most of the material is mainstream stuff from commercially successful artists. Losing a little bit of income isn’t really going to harm them too much because they have so much already.

And finally, if the big media corporations can be destroyed by internet distribution then the artists will win in the end because they will be free from their control.

So piracy is often illegal and it certainly has doubtful moral value, but pretending it is the greatest threat to modern culture is just a self-serving myth invented by the big corporations growing rich from the current model without really contributing anything. Kim Dotcom is certainly no model for good ethical behaviour but he’s not the ultimate example of evil either.

New Zealand Identity

February 5, 2012 Leave a comment

New Zealanders are often accused of having no national identity and after experiencing (or more accurately, not experiencing) our national day (at least I I think it is) I can see why. We have no national identity because we refuse to allow anything unusual about our country to be celebrated. We originally spent our time trying to emulate England and now that this is no longer fashionable we are trying to assimilate Maori beliefs.

There is nothing wrong with English or Maori culture (beyond the sort of things which are wrong with every culture) but they are just not relevant to the majority of the people living here. Our national day is a classic example. Actually things are so bad that I’m not even sure it is our national day. Do we actually have one or is this just a day for Maori to celebrate the Treaty? I genuinely don’t know.

In addition to these factors there is the overwhelming American “culture” we get from TV and movies and that significantly affects us as well. Plus there are the effects from globalisation where successive governments seem intent on selling the country to foreign corporations.

Is it any wonder we have no identity? The same doesn’t seem to have happened in Australia, a country with a very similar background to us. I hope the poor treatment of Aborigines in Australia isn’t a significant reason for this, but I suspect the politically correct pro-Maori nonsense we have here hasn’t happened in Australia and that has helped them to create their own identity.

I have commented on Waitangi Day in this blog many times in the past and my impressions of the occasion don’t seem to be changing much. Almost 10 years ago I said it was a total irrelevance to most and it still is.

We do get a day off work and an opportunity to complain about the day itself but why not? The major news each Waitangi Day seems to be about Maori complaints and the disrespectful treatment of politicians at the Treaty Grounds. Not that I’m complaining about rough treatment of politicians because most of them deserve it. Still it’s unfortunate that the stand-out feature of the day is protest.

The stats demonstrate the reality. In a Herald poll 15% saw the day as a day of protest, 28% saw it as day off from work, 21% thought it was just another day, and just 36% thought it was a day to celebrate New Zealand. How many other countries have a national day which only a third of the population see as a day of celebration?

But apart from that day off what is there? Some tedious coverage of Maori groups complaining about perceived injustices and equally tedious responses from politicians trying unsuccessfully to placate their concerns. Morning prayers in a country which has basically abandoned religion. And nothing much else. It’s irrelevant, embarrassing, and boring. No wonder the majority of us just choose to ignore it.

There is an easy solution to the problem. We probably need to keep Waitangi Day, for two reasons: first it is a commemoration of a significant even in our history; and second, it would be too difficult politically to discontinue its observance. But we need another day which will be for all New Zealanders. We could call this New Zealand day and I suggest, to avoid complaints about too many holidays, we use it to replace Queen’s Birthday. That would give us a new day and symbolise our freedom (not fully realised until we eventually become a republic) from the meaningless influence of England.