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No Answers

It’s unusual for me to be uncertain about stuff. I mean, I am always prepared to change my opinion on anything, if I’m shown new information, but until that happens I usually have a fairly well established position on most things. Here are some examples: most climate change is caused by humans, almost certainly true; fluoride in water is overall beneficial, yes very likely; humans have been to the Moon, no reason to doubt it; the official story of the 9/11 attack is accurate, probably fairly close to being true; evolution is a fact, there is no alternative; etc.

But there are a few things I’m not so certain about. I don’t even have a consistent interim position on these. Some times I will be pro and others anti. And these are some of the most interesting questions in modern society. Let’s have a look at a few of these issues…

Is abortion morally OK?

I know the arguments that abortion is about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, but it isn’t that simple, is it? There is another body involved, even though that is currently sustained by the woman. When does a fertilised egg become a foetus and when does that become an unborn child, and when does that become a unique conscious entity? There are no objective answers and any answers we might have are largely arbitrary.

It seems that in the early stages before any sort of nervous system has developed it would be hard to call the foetus a unique entity, but when does that change? It’s a difficult one and the current limits are arbitrary and could be debated either way.

I know a lot of people hold strong positions on this issue on both sides: some are anti-abortion for irrational religious reasons and some are pro- for equally irrational feminist reasons. I’m just honest enough to say I don’t know.

Does conventional economics produce good outcomes?

Clearly the answer to this question depends on the exact definition of “conventional economics” and “good” but I think most people have a fair idea of what I am talking about. I often argue for a more socialist approach to running our economies, but socialism has been conspicuously unsuccessful in its more pure forms. Of course, I would say those examples (such as the USSR) aren’t the sort of socialist principles I’m talking about, but it does weaken the argument.

On the other hand, free markets, globalisation, and unregulated labour markets seem to clearly produce poor outcomes for the majority. But many people would say that the perceived deficiencies are still less pernicious than those of other economic systems.

I have heard good arguments for greater economic freedom and equally good ones for greater state control. The problem is I trust neither government nor big business! So again, I don’t know where the best balance lies, although I tend to think we need a bit of a correction to the left from the way things are now.

Was Jesus a real person?

If Jesus actually existed and the stories about him are even mostly true then that makes a big difference to my perception of the world. I see practically no reason to believe any of the supernatural aspects of the Jesus story because they are inconsistent and totally unsupported by other sources outside of the Bible, but the question on whether he existed at all is more interesting.

A lot of the time I see the evidence for his existence as being so poor that it just isn’t worth taking seriously. But then I see that most scholars – including many who aren’t specifically Christian – do strongly support the idea he existed, even though they usually reject the religious enhancements to his story, like the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection.

I’m currently in a phase where I say he didn’t exist in any form which would be remotely similar to the Biblical account, but who knows, tomorrow I might read another opinion and tend more to the idea that someone who was a great teacher and proponent of peace and good moral standards did exist and that the Bible stories are based on this.

Is the common interpretation of quantum mechanics real?

The deeper science probes into the inner workings of the universe the more bizarre and incomprehensible reality seems to become. Relativity, with its warped space and time, speeding up and slowing down of time, and other bizarre effects seems odd enough, but that is nothing compared with quantum theory.

Is wave particle duality a real thing? It seems to me that fundamental particles are probably not either waves or particles depending on the experiment we perform on them. More likely they are neither but can be interpreted as either as a sort of shorthand to their true form.

And what about the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics? Does the observer cause the wave function to collapse and define reality? I don’t think anyone really understands the question and certainly no one has a good answer. Like Richard Feynman said: if you think you understand quantum mechanics you obviously don’t know anything about it! (slightly paraphrased)

Do we have free will?

I have heard good arguments both ways on this one too. Usually ideas on this diverge for two reasons: either the person has a religious, philosophical, political, or other irrational worldview which requires free will to be real or an illusion; or the person has an unusual interpretation of what “free will” really is.

I generally say that, according to my defintion, we don’t have free will, but I would have no choice but to believe in free will if good enough evidence arose. There, read that last sentence again and tell me I have free will!

There’s no reason to think that all questions have an answer and maybe I have just chosen what I sometimes call “un-questions”. All I know is that even if no answers exist it’s kind of fun to try to find them.

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  1. October 19, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to comment on the abortion aspect.

    When the Bible says in Psalm 139:13 that creation of a *person* begins in the womb, it is pointing towards a wider (more generally applicable) point: The person is more than just physical cells. They are also potential: who they will become. When this life is artificially stopped at any point in the process, from conception to natural death, who they could have been ceases to be possible.

    Is it morally okay to cut off this potential? This is the undeniable consequence of abortion. Address this as sin or address it as personal freedom. But if you change my future freedoms (e.g. banning me from the blog), that affects me just as much as if you change my current freedoms (e.g. deleting this post). I’ve never understood why we make an arbitrary distinction between the person who is now and ignore the person who will be when we don’t do that in any other context of life.

    The taking of any life, even justified, has moral consequences. It should only be under the most sober decision making that choosing to end a life is undertaken.

    • OJB
      October 19, 2016 at 11:04 pm

      Is that the same logic which is used to argue against birth control?

      • October 20, 2016 at 12:07 am

        The same thought had crossed my mind, but I thought it a bit off-topic.The passage in Psalms only refers to the creation in the womb, and birth control is prior to creation of life.

        I can see how the moral argument could be extended to argue against birth control, but it is a much weaker argument than as applied to the termination of life. I mean what’s the difference between birth control and choosing not to have sex? None whatsoever in this moral context.

        It may be unclear when consciousness begins, but there is no biological (or biblical) question about where and when life begins. Society doesn’t allow termination of life in other states of temporary unconsciousness (sleeping, coma, passed out from drinking too much), so why a fetus? Obviously there are physical differences between these cases, but none that I see apply to the moral argument.

        I don’t think a religious argument is needed to justify the moral argument against abortion. It was just an interesting example. I can’t tell if you find the moral argument compelling or not, but it isn’t hard to see why anti-abortion types come to their conclusion.

  2. OJB
    October 20, 2016 at 12:57 am

    Exactly. That moral argument makes a lot of sense if you take the moment of conception as the point that the new life begins. Of course, I’m not convinced by the Biblical argument because I don’t see that the Bible has any greater moral standing than anything else. In this case though, it agrees with the particular moral argument we have been looking at.

    The only alternative really is so say the developing human has no consciousness and no status as a person until a certain stage of development is reached, but then we get the problem that any stage accepted is open to the criticism of being arbitrary.

    • October 20, 2016 at 1:48 am

      The alternative logically leads to the possibility of legitimizing infanticide. There are also hints of applicability to the death penalty, assisted suicide, and other such policies.It is just so arbitrary. I’m unable to come up with any consistent concrete stance.

      On the flip side, if you take the moral argument to its logical conclusion, then abortion is murder. Based on the moral argument alone, the political positions should probably be anti-abortion and pro-birth control.

  3. October 20, 2016 at 2:39 am

    Was Jesus a real person? What a fascinating question. I’m going to speculate in a way you may never have considered before. Bear with me please.

    Let’s look at what the gospels as historical accounts of the historical Jesus. Start at the first event contained in all four gospels: his baptism, the start of his ministry. Why then? Why does the Lukean genealogy align with the baptism event?

    The genealogies establish the right of the historical Jesus to the historical throne of David as *the* rightful heir to the Judean throne. It is a claim of kingship. Why next to the baptism? Because Jesus could not start his work until his father, Joseph, had died. Joseph is notably absent from the (family?) wedding feast, for example. When Jesus visits his home, why do the people ask who he is? It seems only his sisters were living in Nazareth because they had been married off years before. The rest of the family relocated with the firstborn Jesus after Joseph had died.

    Both the religious leaders and the Romans took him seriously as a political threat because he had a legitimate claim. Jesus tried to hide his identity as Messiah / King of the Jews because it was politically dangerous. He was called “Son of David” and no one questioned his right to be called that. He was ultimately crucified for the real crime of being “King of the Jews”.

    Various aspects of the birth narrative are there to establish his historical claim to kingship. For example, the visit from the magi and the killing of babies to kill the heir to the throne.

    If you view the various components of the gospels together, you get a pretty consistent view of Jesus as heir to the throne and political dissident. His followers either made up stories in order to bolster his claim to the throne, or those things actually happened. Either way, it supports the notion that a real political dissident named Jesus really lived and died and that he was a popular local figure.

  4. OJB
    October 20, 2016 at 7:00 am

    Yes, I tend towards anti-abortion and pro-birth control, but I can see a case for allowing abortion at an early stage too. The question is how early, and how do you justify whatever essentially arbitrary point you come up with? Still rather conflicted on this one!

    Regarding Jesus: I really can’t take the gospels too seriously, because: we don’t know who wrote them, we know they were written decades after the events they purport to describe, and we know they copy for each other. Also, we know they have a religious agenda. I tend to think they are essentially useless as a source of real information.

    So if the gospels are useless what else is there? Well not much. There is Tacitus and Josephus and a few others, but all of those are also very unconvincing. The problem is that after 2000 years is it reasonable to expect strong evidence? Maybe not. Again, I’m conflicted.

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