Archive for December, 2014

A Meta-Opinion

December 24, 2014 Leave a comment

I have a lot of opinions on a wide variety of subjects. Some of them are controversial and others are fairly mundane, some are well supported by the consensus of experts and others not so much so, some I am practically certain about and others I have significant doubts about. I think these differences stem from the different types of knowledge areas these opinions exist in.

I have already explained in previous blog posts how I think there are no facts in the real world. We can never be 100% sure about anything except in the fields of maths and logic where some things are true because they are defined that way. For example if A leads to B and B leads to C then A leads to C, or if A leads to B then if not B then not A, etc.

But saying the Sun will rise tomorrow is not a fact because there is a tiny chance that the Earth or Sun could suffer some astronomical catastrophe before then. Of course the contention that the Sun will rise tomorrow is so close to being a fact that we might as well treat it as one, and this applies to many things in science, and I would say that it applies to many of my opinions too.

But not to all. There are areas where I fully realise that I might be wrong or that right and wrong might not even have much meaning. So let’s look at some of my opinions and see just how close to being a fact they are…

First opinion: evolution is the best theory to describe the diversity of life on Earth.

I would call this a fact because the evidence is so overwhelming and there is no serious alternative theory. Note that this doesn’t mean evolution itself is true because there might be another explanation of the phenomenon not covered by a current theory (although this is unlikely). There might also be weaknesses in evolution theory (although there are no serious ones I know of) but the alternatives might be even weaker.

Second opinion: anthropogenic climate change is a real phenomenon and a threat to our future.

This is somewhat less of a fact because there is a significant quantitative factor which isn’t well specified. For example, how much of a threat is it and to whom? Some outcomes might be significant enough to be called threats by some people but not by others. Also, climate change has multiple causes and some are not related to human activity (note that I didn’t specifically claim this in my opinion).

Third opinion: since we know of no greater source of moral standards all moral judgements are effectively opinions.

Some people would debate the antecedent here but if we allow for it to be true I think the consequent naturally follows. I would also point out that the opposite is also true: that if there are absolute moral rules then there must be a higher source (god maybe). So I think this opinion is a fact if we allow the antecedent (that there is no greater source of moral standards).

Note that this can’t be used to prove god exists though, because there is no evidence that absolute moral standards exist (unless you invoke god’s laws and succumb to the logical fallacy of begging the question).

Fourth opinion: neo-liberal economics is the cause of most of the world’s current problems.

This is clearly an opinion and even though I can back it up with a series of facts I also realise that someone holding the opposing view could also demonstrate some facts to support that. Since no controlled experiment has ever been held (and never can be held) comparing different political and economic systems I would say that it might never be possible to say with any certainty which system is best.

I also accept that this statement involves a touch of rhetorical hyperbole. There should be no doubt that neo-liberal economics has major flaws, it’s really just a matter of how significant these flaws are in comparison to alternative systems.

I think it’s important when debating a subject to know what kind of question it is.

Is it a question of logic? If it is there’s probably little point in continuing the debate since the rules of logic are already well established and we are either following them or we are not.

Is it a question of facts about the real world? If it is realise that there are no absolute facts and rejecting a theory because it is only 99% certain is not good debating technique, especially if your alternative has almost no credibility.

Finally, is it a question of complex human behaviour (such as politics or economics)? If it is then there is little chance of reaching any credible conclusion because the system is just so complex and sensitive to unpredictable effects. We should still debate these subjects but finding a final conclusion or point of agreement is unlikely.

Just to finish I wondered what type of statement this blog entry was about (a sort of meta-opinion: an opinion about opinions). It’s a little bit of them all really so conclude from that what you wish!


Have a Beer, Buddha

December 19, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s no secret that I am not a great fan of religion, but if I (along with many other technical and science oriented people) was forced to choose one it would probably be Buddhism. I guess that’s because of the Dalai Lama and the philosophical basis of Buddhism which just seems to be make more sense.

I should mention here that many people say Buddhism actually isn’t a religion. According to Wikipedia “Buddhism is a nontheistic religion…” and “While many approaches to religion exclude nontheism by definition, there are some inclusive definitions that show how religious practice and belief do not depend on the presence of god(s)” so I guess opinions vary, but that’s not the point of this post anyway.

My point is that things aren’t always what they seem. For example, the Dalai Lama isn’t necessarily quite as great as some people would suggest if you explore the way Tibet was run before it was taken over by the Chinese – not that I am suggesting the Chinese are much of an improvement!

And then there are the disturbing reports of atrocities committed by Buddhists. For example there have been many cases in Myanmar where Rohingya Muslims have been attacked by mobs of extremist Buddhists despite the Buddhist principle of nonviolence.

And now there is a case reported from Myanmar (previously known as Burma) where a New Zealand bar manager has been charged with insulting Buddhism after he posted an image of Buddha wearing headphones on the internet as part of a promotion for a new bar. He is currently being held in a prison in Myanmar which are reportedly not pleasant places to be.

OK, so he might have been acting like a bit of an ass when he did this but it seems relatively harmless and surely not something worth being thrown in prison over. And since I criticised Muslims for getting upset over Mohammed Cartoons (and many other things) and Christians for persecuting gays and other groups they disapprove of (and many other things) I should equally criticise Buddhism for this lack of tolerance over this issue.

So what’s the problem here? Why do religions (even notheistic ones) show such an inability to accept alternative ideas and criticism? Why can’t they take a joke? Why do they insist on being treated with more respect than they really deserve?

Well I have no data on this but I think it’s because they are all fully aware of how weak their beliefs really are, so they feel the need to protect them in any way necessary from any real or perceived threat. Add to that the fact that in the past religions have been given a lot more respect than they really deserve – a phenomenon which continues today in many countries – and there should be little surprise that followers of religion to insist on special treatment.

There is one other factor: belief in religion is irrational so extending that lack of rationality to acting irrationally to those who criticise them is again, no great surprise.

A far better response than throwing a person into jail would be to have a good laugh and say yeah, Buddha would love a call set of ‘phones like that and probably enjoy a quiet beer at this bar as well! I’m sure that’s the sort of response the Dalai Lama would give (note that he is head of a different branch of Buddhism).

So Buddhists shouldn’t complain when they see an image of Buddha with headphones, Muslims shouldn’t complain about cartoons showing Mohammed with a bomb balanced on his head, and Christians shouldn’t complain about a cartoon of Jesus laughing at them saying “there’s a sucker born again every minute”. None of these things really bring their religions into disrepute. There’s no need for it because they are doing such a good job of that themselves!

Three Rants

December 10, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve been working on a few different programming projects recently so I haven’t had as much time as I usually do to write blog entries (you might have noticed my decreased output). But there have been many interesting issues in the last few days and I feel I need to comment on them all, so here is a “random rants” entry where I will briefly comment (or perhaps rant) on a series of seemingly unrelated topics. So, let’s get started….

Rant the first, subject: politics. The CIA torture report and the moral standards of the US power structure in general.

Well there’s no surprises there really, is there? I mean, the report found that the CIA indulge in torture, abuse, and other illegal activities – including on many innocent people – and then lie about it and launch propaganda campaigns supporting their case.

Surely nobody would have been naive enough to think that the CIA, and the US power structure in general, didn’t partake in activities which superficially seem to be just as bad as those of their opponents.

The only question really is whether, because the Americans are the “good guys”, we should accept these activities as a necessary evil. Maybe sacrificing a few innocent victims is just a price we have to pay. Maybe we have to fight immoral violent terrorist activities with similarly violent reactions. Maybe the only unfortunate thing was that these activities have been uncovered.

I would say that this isn’t acceptable because not only are these actions morally unacceptable but practically they don’t work either: torture has been shown on many occasions to be a poor way to gain new information from suspects.

Rant the second, subject: religion. How religious belief can lead to extreme, hateful, and anti-social behaviour.

A New Zealand pastor sent an abusive email to a prominent gay author saying he prayed for the author’s death: “I pray that you will commit suicide, you filthy fag.” The pastor, from Westcity Bible Baptist Church (maybe he got the church’s name mixed up with Westboro Baptist!), was replying to a message the author sent to Auckland churches about his new autobiography.

It’s debatable to what extent the Bible encourages its followers to despise gays. There is no doubt it partly encourages this attitude because it’s clearly there in scripture. Of course, many Christians ignore this by making excuses about why a particular verse has been superseded or has been misinterpreted, and that’s good because people having blind belief in an old book is one of my biggest objections to religion.

Sure, there are non-Christians who also hate gays, and there are Christians who don’t. But I don’t accept the idea that you can’t blame the religion for the bad attitude of some of its followers. Of course you can (partly) blame it because it is a major factor in the problem.

The final rant, subject: economics. New Zealand has done well (macro-economically speaking) in the last few years largely because of its success at exporting dairy products, but what will happen now?

There is a case which could be made to say that New Zealand has done better than many other countries since the global financial crisis. Of course the government likes to claim that it was their management which lead to this success, but how true is that claim?

I would say not true at all. A case could be made that a more moderate approach might have lead to even greater success and that global dairy prices – something completely beyond the government’s control – have been what saved the country more than anything else.

While dairy prices were high many people were saying how great it was and what a great job New Zealand’s dairy monopoly (or virtual monopoly) Fonterra was doing. But some were warning us that it wouldn’t last and that greater diversification of the economy would be a wise move and that at a minimum greater value should be added by processing dairy instead of just trying to increase volumes.

Now dairy prices have plummeted and that advice is looking like it might have been pretty good, after all. Now who did that advice come from? That’s right, the Greens, who the current government like to criticise as being economically illiterate.

I’m sure that as out economy begins to fail all the people who claimed they were in charge when things were going well will suddenly claim that they can’t be held responsible for this failure. Yes, the government and Fonterra are entirely responsible for all the good stuff but can’t be blamed for the bad. How convenient for them!


December 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Today I came across a word I hadn’t seen before (in fact it occurs less than 200,000 times on the whole internet) but which has a very obvious meaning. That word was “Nixonian” and it was used to describe the behaviour of our prime minister, John Key.

The definition is this: “of or relating to Richard Nixon (1913–1994), 37th President of the United States, famously associated with the Watergate scandal” but looking at the use of the word it is obviously more often used to describe someone who uses dirty tactics to attack his opponents. And that certainly seems to fit our prime minister really well!

Nixon was sometimes referred to as “Tricky Dicky” so I guess the equivalent for the New Zealand PM would be my oft-used “Shonky John Key”. If you read back through my entries on Key since he became PM you can see my opinion was initially fairly positive but became more and more negative as time passed.

So initially I thought he might be OK but my hopes were soon dashed when he almost immediately broke a campaign promise not to raise taxes and, to make matters worse, offered the richest section of society a huge tax cut which has had negative consequences on the country ever since.

The PM has been extremely skillful in deflecting any criticism up until now but I think his invincibility (another name I have heard is “Teflon John” based on the idea that he has a Teflon non-stick coating and the dirt won’t stick) is being challenged. His continual denial of obvious facts and his tactic of launching irrelevant attacks on his opponents instead of answering fair questions is really damaging his credibility this time.

Many people have said something like “so what, this is just politics and we shouldn’t be surprised or concerned about it” but I think this has gone a bit beyond just a robust political scuffle. My main concern is the involvement of New Zealand’s spy agency, the SIS. Considering they already have significant powers and the PM wants to extend those even further I think we should all be very concerned.

The SIS assure us that they have prevented several possible terrorist attacks recently but refuse to supply even basic details so that this could be verified. What we do know though is that they have been involved in various political attacks and clearly cannot be trusted to get even the basics right.

The possible outcome of these Nixonian activities is actually quite momentous. It’s possible that John Key’s National party might have won the previous (2011) election as a result of the way the (then) opposition leader, Phil Goff, was smeared by a conspiracy involving the Prime Minister’s office, the SIS, and right-wing blogger Cameron Slater.

So this current bout of dirty politics isn’t just a bit of robust posturing at all, it’s a deliberate and organised attempt at using lies and bypassing laws and regulations to effect the outcome of the democratic process. If that isn’t something the PM should resign over I’m not sure what is. At least old Tricky Dicky did have the decency to resign when he was caught playing dirty. Will Shonky John Key have the same moral principles? I doubt it.