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Forget the Labels

December 31, 2013 Leave a comment

I often don’t find labels or classifications useful, especially when it comes to complex human beliefs. For example, I resent being labelled as an atheist or socialist, even though I don’t think there is a god and tend to the political left. And saying that “atheist philosophers” have a fixed set of beliefs which preclude them from reaching certain conclusions is just a cop-out.

Reality is a bit more complex than that. I don’t think that not believing in a god makes me something, it just means I’m not something else. I don’t need to belong to any particular belief system to not believe in something for which there is no good evidence. So for the vast majority atheism really doesn’t exist. There might be a few people out there who insist there is no god (which is different from not believing there is one) for ideological reasons, and maybe they might be called atheists, but I don’t know any.

But even then the label becomes confused. If I say I’m an atheist many people say I just refuse to believe or am certain I am right. But that’s not true, I just don’t think there’s a god based on the evidence I have seen at this point. If that changed so would my opinion. Discovering that there really is a god would be absolutely amazing and fascinating!

And regarding socialism. I don’t even know what the official definition of a socialist is, I just know that I believe in balanced political policies and think the current ones we have are too far towards what we usually think of as the right. For example employers have too much power over workers, taxes for the rich are too low, corporations have too much influence, etc.

So if wanting to back away from some of the more extreme policies of the last 30 years makes me a socialist then call me that, but it’s not really an accurate or fair description. I don’t belong to any political party and have voted for many different parties over the years depending on their policies at the time.

Of course, I have occasionally used labels to describe some of my opponents! The word “creationist” appears about 200 times in this blog! And that’s not even counting the comments. But that’s different! :) Creationists really do believe in an ideology which is tediously alike from one adherent to another.

But to be fair I suppose I really shouldn’t use that particular label and should criticise a particular belief instead. It’s just that the label creationist is a good proxy for someone with all of (but not limited to) the following utterly ridiculous beliefs: the origin of the universe is described in the Bible, evolution is not primarily responsible for the variety of life on Earth, and the Bible is literally true.

Anyone who believes this sort of stuff when it can be easily shown beyond any reasonable doubt that it’s not true, is not only a creationist but also an idiot!

So maybe labels are OK but we should be a bit more careful about how we use them. If labels are over-used they lose their meaning and often become a sort of de-facto ad hominem attack (not always because sometimes a label is relevant). We just need to be rationalists and pragmatists about this!

Leave it to the Philosophers

December 29, 2013 2 comments

When debating religious people (and others who have beliefs not necessarily based in reality) I often come across the idea that a supernatural world exists which cannot be understood by conventional methods, such as science, maths, or logic. Because this world isn’t accessible to the techniques I prefer to rely on to explain other phenomena I am blocked from commenting on it. For example, some people might say I cannot justifiably comment on the existence of god because that is a question about the supernatural world which is beyond my preferred methods of discovery.

It’s not just religious people who make this argument. Many scientists also use it, although I do get the impression that some find it a convenient way to avoid having to comment on contentious issues rather than genuinely believing it is true!

Famously, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould developed the idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” which says that science and religion have different purposes and are useful to examine different areas of knowledge. He defined magisteria as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution”, and claims “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)”.

Well, maybe… but the thing which I find puzzling is why religion? Why does the examination of meaning and moral values require a supernatural element? Surely this is where philosophy would claim to have the ultimate mandate. But where would that leave religion? With nothing, and that’s the problem. I guess Gould and others are just trying to be nice and avoid conflict with the extensive religious community in the US by giving it responsibility for an area of knowledge which it doesn’t really deserve.

Look at religion’s efforts in the past at discovering ultimate meaning and moral value. They haven’t exactly been an outstanding success, have they? For example, for ultimate meaning. This is established through a childish myth involving an illogical and capricious god which no one should really take seriously. Is this really ultimate meaning? I say leave it to the philosophers!

And regarding moral values. Sure, there’s a lot of positive philosophy in many religions, especially Christianity, but there is also a lot of superstition, intolerance, and lack of relevance. Again I would rather trust philosophy with this responsibility because it doesn’t have to constantly work around an old myth.

Actually, what I have written above seems slightly harsh. Maybe religion does have a place but I don’t think it has anything to do with establishing truth or meaning. Maybe it has a place in forming communities and maintaining historical myths and traditions. But that seems a rather diminished role to what religion has had in the past and what it sees itself as needing to communicate today.

In Defence of Pirates

December 26, 2013 1 comment

Because I work with computers I know a lot of people who download material from the internet which might technically be copyrighted – in which case you might call those people pirates. The most common material I have seen downloaded this way is music, movies and computer software.

Of course the big corporations who make a lot of money out of distributing this sort of material don’t like it and there are various schemes, which have varying levels of effectiveness, to try to stop it. Depending on who you listen to the “problem” might be getting better or worse, but I want to ignore that and talk about whether it is a good or bad thing, and if it is a bad thing, how bad.

I heard a podcast recently which presented some arguments against piracy and I want to respond to them here, because I don’t think most of them are valid. Note that I’m not encouraging people to go out and break copyright laws, but I’m not condemning anyone who does either!

The first argument I hear is what is the difference between taking a music track for free from the internet and taking an item, such as an iPod, from a retail store?

People who condemn piracy will say the two are the same but clearly they aren’t. Anyone who steals a physical object has taken something with a real value, and when it is gone that value is also gone. By copying a song no real value has gone because the “owner” of the song has physically lost nothing.

You might say that a value can be placed on each copy of the song, or each time it is played, or using some other criteria, but that is an artificial and arbitrary value with little relevance to the actual objective value of the object (and in fact there is no object because it is only information which has been copied).

Another argument is that musicians, film makers, software developers, etc rely on income from their material to survive and by taking that income less material will be produced.

Well I see no sign of that. I don’t see a lot of musicians changing their career to accountancy because they can’t make money from songs, for example. And companies with little copy protection in place (such as Apple on their operating system) are doing as well or better than those with silly protection schemes which inconvenience real customers (such as Microsoft).

Sometimes the point is made that pirates justify their illegal actions by using convoluted rationalisations such as “musicians want their music to be heard” or “music corporations are evil” or “I am just liberating the music”.

Actually, although the actual words might not be the best, the sentiment behind these is absolutely true. Many musicians actually do want their music heard by as many people as possible. Big music corporations are evil. And making an important part of our culture free is a form of liberation in some sense. So maybe those are rationalisations, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

Here’s another rationalisation (which may or may not be true): music (or movies or software) is far too expensive and if it cost a bit less people would be prepared to pay for it.

You might say that just because something costs too much that doesn’t give you the right to take it for free, but maybe it does. Prices will only come down if they are forced down by some new model. Since the big corporations won’t play fair maybe the consumer has to force them to change by being “unfair”.

And there is good anecdotal evidence that reducing pricing does encourage more people to actually pay. Software stores, like Apple’s app store, provide software very cheaply and I know many people now who just buy stuff there instead of going to the trouble of pirating it. If a program costs $20 many people will just buy it when at $200 they might not.

Another point often made is this: when you pay for music most of the money goes to useless parasites. One estimate gave the following break down for the cost of a US$12 CD: $2 to record company profits and executive salaries, $1.10 for manufacturing, $0.80 to the performer (some estimates are as low as $0.41), $0.65 to the songwriter, and the rest to managers, lawyers, accountants, distribution, etc.

In fact the return on music sales is so little to the artist that many rely on live performances and related products to make money. If they do this then getting as much music as possible to the public (even if it’s free) is surely a good thing.

Here’s something which actually makes me want to pirate movies: when I play a DVD or Blu-Ray which I have bought I often have to watch a tedious advertisement on the evils of piracy. The person who has pirated the movie has this stripped out and doesn’t see it! So only legitimate buyers are lectured about piracy! This more than anything else shows the absolute stupidity of the music companies.

And another similar issue: purchased movies on disk can only be played by players with the correct region. This is a constant problem on computers. Pirated movies have this region stuff stripped out. Again, only the legitimate buyer is inconvenienced.

Finally there’s this ultimate argument: if you don’t like the distribution model you don’t have to listen to the music, watch the movie, or use the software. Again I think this is a false argument. These things are important parts of our culture which have been hijacked by big corporations. They have no right to control them and I don’t think that argument holds as a result.

So piracy is still illegal, but laws are made by politicians being pressured by big companies, so that’s not necessarily important. All I will say is that maybe those pirates aren’t as bad as many people think!

The New Tobacco Industry

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Most people now consider smoking a bad thing and support efforts to eradicate it. At the same time many people (me included) are uncomfortable about political programs which are designed to modify people’s behaviour and remove personal choice. Yes, I do rate personal freedom as a very high priority. That is where I agree with the libertarian agenda – it’s their economic ideology I have trouble with!

As far as I know no western country has outlawed smoking completely or made tobacco products illegal, but they have used numerous political, social, and economic tools to make smoking less acceptable. Of course, the less socially acceptable it is the more some people will want to do it, but the strategy does seem to be successful overall because the percentage of people who smoke has dropped significantly.

So while smoking hasn’t been completely eradicated yet, it is on the way out and it now seems we should ask what is the next problem of a similar type which should be tackled? Judging from the alarming results of a number of recent studies maybe it should be obesity. This seems to be a growing problem (excuse the pun) in the western world and one with huge social and economic costs because of the health effects of being significantly overweight.

But this is a personal freedom thing again. if people want to live on junk food and drink nothing but sugar water of various sorts, isn’t that their choice? Well, yes and no (and you might recognise, yet again, my favourite answer to these sorts of questions).

It should be a choice but one based on good information and without dishonest coercion from those with a vested interest in the subject. So should advertising of junk food be banned? Actually I would prefer advertising of everything to be banned because it’s really just a legal way for companies to lie to the public, as well as being tedious and repetitive. But that will never happen and good and fair advertising (if it actually exists) can genuinely inform people of new products so I guess I need to look at other options.

So what about using the tax system? This is the obvious choice because apart from the propaganda coming from advertising the next biggest issue is the fact that junk food is cheap. The market has failed (as it always does) to put a real price on junk food so it’s up to the government to intervene and add a bit extra in to account for the negative effects. So taxing junk food (difficult to define, I know) and removing tax from healthy food (again, there would be some debate of what this actually is) would likely have a considerable positive effect.

There has been pressure to remove GST from healthy food for years now but successive governments have refused to do it because they want to keep the GST system pure and simple. That is a fair point because simplicity is good, but I think the potential benefits might outweigh the disadvantages in this case.

In fact once a precedent was set removing GST could be used as a tool to encourage other positive behaviour as well. But as I write that sentence I feel a bit uncomfortable again: what about that pesky personal freedom thing? There’s no easy answer, I guess.

Evidence for a Multiverse?

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment

For many years now I have been intrigued by the idea of multiple universes. If they exist it would answer a lot of the problems we have with current theories, such as what happened before the Big Bang, what caused it, what it formed from, and why our universe seems so special (in terms of the physical constants seemingly being fine-tuned to allow life).

First I should briefly explain these problems. A question people often ask about the Big Bang is what happened before it and what caused it. If it really was the origin of our universe and there no other universes then those questions have no obvious answer, in fact the questions themselves may make no sense (because time and space didn’t exist before our universe began).

Then there is the puzzling observation that many of the constants, such as the strength of gravity and electromagnetism, are not predicted by theory so could have any value. Yet if their values were much different to what they actually are life anywhere in the universe would not be possible. And that isn’t just “life as we know it”, it is any reasonable type of life (for reasons I won’t go into here to save space).

But a multiverse theory can answer these questions in a rather elegant way.

If our universe is just one part of a multiverse, with an infinite number of universes in it, and ours “broke off” from the multiverse during the Big Bang then we avoid the origin problems. The multiverse would be infinite in time and space so asking what is outside the universe or what happened before is no problem: outside is just more universes embedded in a multiverse which has always existed.

We still can’t say for sure what “caused” our universe to “break off” but I think it’s fair to suggest it was one of those causeless, random quantum events. This idea is supported by the fact that the total energy in our universe seems to be zero.

So what about the fine tuning argument? This has been used as a reason to believe in a god. Some people say that the universe could only be the way it is if an intelligent entity had deliberately made it that way. Of course, like most theological theories, this one is absurd because it just pushes the problem back one step: we know why the universe is the way it is but why is god the way he is? It’s really nothing more than a “god of the gaps” argument.

A multiverse answers this question very easily. If there are an infinite number of universes all with slightly different values for the constants then there is sure to be one which suits life. We live in that one because we couldn’t live in any other, just like we evolved here on Earth because Venus is too hot and Mars too cold.

The whole idea is just perfect, except for one small issue: there has never been the slightest piece of evidence to support it! Perhaps until now…

Scientists who have studied radiation data gathered by Planck telescope think they have found evidence of other universes (although this is disputed). The theory says that during the first seconds of the universe it would be affected by other universes in the area and that would be detectable in background radiation patterns. And that’s what some researchers think they have found.

I really do have to say that this stuff is rather speculative and quite preliminary at this point but I think I have noticed a trend over the last 10 years for multiverse theories to be taken more and more seriously. Maybe in the near future the evidence will be much better and the theory will be generally accepted. It’s certainly an interesting idea and the best explanation yet of some of the most puzzling questions we have.

It Doesn’t Matter

December 18, 2013 Leave a comment

In 2010 a major explosion at the Pike River mine killed 29 miners. Most people think the accident was caused by negligence by mine management when implementing safety standards, and by poor safety regulation because of our government trying to save money and reduce compliance costs. It seems bad but don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter, because the mine management and the politicians responsible still got paid their exorbitant salaries, and that’s the most important thing.

According to a recent report many New Zealand (which is theoretically a rich, western country) children are suffering and even dying from infections caused by a poor standard of housing. But it doesn’t matter because the landlords who own those properties are getting a good profit from them and that’s all that really matters.

In New Zealand, despite the fact that we market ourselves as clean and green, many of our rivers are polluted to the point where they are dangerous to swim in and certainly hazardous to drink the water from. But it doesn’t matter because the rich dairy farmers who are causing most of the pollution are making a fortune and isn’t that really what life is all about?

Our government has paid out tens of millions of taxpayers’ funds in corporate welfare, such as subsidies and tax write-offs for big American movie companies who want to make movies here in New Zealand. These same companies have gone on to make hundreds of millions or even billions from these movies but have never offered to pay back the subsidies. But never mind, the poor are paying more tax to make up the difference and the rich are getting richer and isn’t that what we all want?

Many people in New Zealand – even if they are working one or more jobs – can’t survive with the money they make because of hugely inflated costs of basics like housing and electricity. But it doesn’t matter because as long as the free market is in operation all of this stuff will look after itself. All praise to the free market!

The increasing number of people living in poverty today often find themselves having to take out expensive loans just to survive. But it doesn’t matter because the loan sharks are doing very well out of it and isn’t this just an example of clever entrepreneurship filling a market niche?

The current government don’t care about most of the citizens of our country, or if they do care they are too stuck in their ideological mindset to offer any practical help. But it doesn’t matter because people will still vote for a sleazy, smug scumbag like John Key anyway. They just don’t seem to get it.

But why should I care? It just doesn’t matter.

Humility, Concern, and Love

December 16, 2013 Leave a comment

It is no secret that I am no great fan of organised religion… or disorganised religion either, if it comes to that! But I do have to say that I have some admiration for the new Pope who has just been made Time Magazine’s person of the year. Now admittedly their choices in the past (both Hitler and Stalin appear) might impart a certain amount of discredit on the whole process, but it is still significant, I think.

So I want to take a look at some of the things the Pope has said and done since he took over almost a year ago. Any positive comments here don’t mean that I think large organisations based on superstition are a good thing, just that there is good and bad in everything and there is a lot more good in the Church now than in the past. So, on to the list…

On trickle-down economic theories:

He said “Trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world … has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power … Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

He’s 100% right. The trickle-down theory (the idea that laws which make life easier for, and give greater wealth to commercial and industrial leaders will lead to a better life for the rest also) has never been proven to work and in my opinion can never work. How long have we been waiting for the benefits of this ideology? Too long, and we will need to keep waiting because they will never arrive.

On what he calles “the new idolatry of money”:

He said: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Again he’s right. Money is supposed to be a tool which allows us to control resources and exchange goods. But it has become and end in itself and people who are both immoral and self-centered do well playing that game. I really don’t think that is what any economic system should be focussed on.

On luxuries:

He seems to genuinely eschew the trappings of high office (he lived simply even before becoming Pope) and realises that an organisation which has many of its members living in poverty has no right to demand every luxury for itself.

He temporarily relieved a German Bishop (who had earned the nickname “Bishop of Bling”) from his post after reports of his liking for luxury goods, such as a $42 million renovation of his residence and first-class plane flight to India. I’m not sure why this wasn’t permanent but maybe it’s all to do with that “forgiveness” thing!

When he can, Pope Francis avoids travelling in the fortified Mercedes previous Popes have used and recently he accepted a 1984 Renault 4 from a priest and intends to drive it for short journeys. He also rejected living in the luxurious papal apartments, and moved into a Vatican residence with visiting clergy and lay people.

Famously, one day after being chosen Pope, he returned to his guest house, thanked the staff, and personally paid the bill.

I find this quite inspiring. If more of our leaders (and not just religious leaders) took this sort of attitude I think the world would be a far better place. We have extreme hypocrisy everywhere: the rich getting huge income increases while telling everyone else that in tough times we must make sacrifices, politicians accepting salary boosts while driving down wages and conditions for everyone else. This dishonesty has to stop and maybe this is a start.

On the church’s priorities:

When asked to describe himself, he said: “I am a sinner.” He also insisted that “the church’s ministers must be merciful” instead of “acting like bureaucrats or government officials,” and said that it is “not necessary” for the church to focus on abortion, gay marriage and contraception “all the time.”

Yeah well, here I’m not quite so positive. This emphasis on sin is unhealthy in my opinion. I would like to know what sins he has committed though! On the positive side he is against bureaucracy and that is also one of my pet hates! Saying that less emphasis should be put on those social issues is good but why not go one step further and allow them all?

Symbolism:

On Holy Thursday 2013, re-enacting the ritual that Jesus washed the apostles’ feet before his death, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 criminal offenders. That included two women, one a Serbian Muslim.

Surely this is the ultimate symbol of humility, and surely it is an important part of the Christian message (note that I think just about the whole story of Christ’s life is fabricated but a message can be based on fiction as well as fact and that doesn’t necessarily make it less inspiring).

Even as an atheist I find it hard to dislike Pope Francis, although I still have problems with some of his church’s dogma. Whether Catholic dogma is true or not (it clearly isn’t) doesn’t really matter. The point is that it is the biggest church in the world and if having a leader like this can make a positive difference then I say… Well here’s a couple of examples from comments on the Internet: “Pope Francis… you may see me in mass Sunday. Way to go.” and “Christian leaders everywhere could learn from the Pope’s example. His humility, concern for the poor, deference and love are refreshing.”