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What I Believe

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Just to show what a sad and annoying person I am, I have to admit to the following… On Christmas Day, between opening presents, watching bad movies, chatting with family, and drinking lots of wine, I was involved with a rather protracted and involved discussion on Christianity. Yeah a discussion (or should I say argument) about religion… on Christmas… seems perfectly appropriate to me!

The people I was debating with really had nothing. It was stuff like: believe in Christianity because it says so in the Bible. But that isn’t the subject of this post. During the discussion I was asked what I believe, and I realised that I have never really said what that is in a precise, compact form. So, without further preamble, here it is…

First, I want to know what’s true. I totally understand what solipsism is all about, and ultimately I agree that we can never know anything for certain. The whole universe, my total existence, and all the other people I know could all be an illusion. After all, many people with schizophrenia imagine they live in a world which, to me, seems delusional. And I could say something similar, to a lesser degree, regarding some people’s religious beliefs, but more of that later!

So it is more a convenience than a firm philosophical commitment when I say that I think an absolute reality exists. If it doesn’t then I really can’t see a lot of point in trying to understand anything.

The next question is, can we ever know what this reality is? Well no. I don’t think we can ever truly know if any understanding we have is ultimately correct. But I do think we can get very good approximations with a high degree of confidence regarding our theories of reality.

So how should we establish what these best explanations are? Basically, we should use the scientific method. That is, we find a way to test whether theories are right or wrong using objective, repeatable, and neutral experiments and observations.

Since there is always uncertainty I have an arbitrary point where I accept someting as true (at least in the interim). That point is is at a fairly high level. I would prefer to think that something is false when it later turns out to be true, than to accept something as true and then find it wasn’t. Believing something which is untrue leads to too many consequences which I cannot accept.

So that covers the more mechanical aspects of my philosophy, now what about the more tenuous concepts such as morality? I guess basically I am a utilitarian. I think we should aim for the greatest good for the greatest number. But it is well known that simple utilitarianism breaks down in many situations (the famous trolley problems demonstrate this quite well) so it can’t be that simple.

But humans are a social species and we have evolved a strong sense of empathy. This is both a biological and a social phenomenon and it changes over time. There seems to be clear evidence that human society is getting better. Steven Pinker has demonstrated this quite convincingly in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and I think it is clear that, despite the very real problems we face today, that human society is less violent, more tolerant, and more fair than in the past.

So when the majority of humans have an “inner feeling” for what is right and wrong I think we should take notice of that. This means that morality isn’t absolute and there is no inherent right and wrong, but I’m OK with that.

So that’s the physical and social worlds taken care of. What about the spiritual or supernatural world? Well, my thoughts on that depend on your definitions of the words. I can say that every atheist I know claims to have a spiritual aspect to their life without believing in the supernatural. So I think my connection with the beauty of music, art, and just the grandeur of the real universe is at least as significant as any religious person’s connection with their (imagined) god.

Of course, it is difficult to prove this using the science I have recommended above, so this is a conjecture on my part more than a statement of fact. However I feel I am missing nothing when a religious person says they “feel sorry” for me because I don’t have a connection with their particular god. I have a connection with the real universe, which I think is far more impressive.

And I totally reject the existence of the supernatural. This is more a matter of definition than anything else. If there was a god, for example, which interacted with the real world, then I would claim that is really just another part of the natural universe and could be studied by science. If that god lived in another “dimension” and never interacted with our universe then I say it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that as an approximation, I’m saying it literally doesn’t exist.

Finally, I do use a few shortcuts when discussing aspects of the world using my philosophy. I say certain things are “facts” for example, such as evolution and the Big Bang. But I’m not trying to say those phenomena are true beyond any possible doubt. There is always room for doubt (see my first few points above) but the certainty is sufficient that using the word “fact” is a fair shortcut instead of having to say “99.9% certainty”.

Also, there is “no doubt” (again there is some doubt, but such a small amount that ignoring it is fair) that evolutionary processes happened, and that something started our universe 13.7 billion years ago, but the exact details of what really happened are not yet known. So the fact of evolution happening and the theory explaining how it happened are two very different things.

Finally I should use the philosophical points I have outlined above to answer the “god question”. Is there a god? Well, I cannot see any good reason to think so. The closest thing to actual evidence I think is the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. But even that doesn’t help much because if we accept the universe has been fine-tuned by a god that just pushes the question back to where did that fine-tuned god come from?

And as far as the big religions are concerned I find them ridiculously non-compelling. I’m confident of one thing: if there is a god it bears absolutely no resemblance at all to the vile, homicidal megalomaniac described by the Abrahamic religions! And the other religions, such as Hinduism, also seem to be using human attributes to create gods with varying levels of appeal.

So if gods don’t seem too credible, what about prophets, such as Jesus? Well, I go around in circles on Jesus a bit. Sometimes I think he didn’t even exist and others I think a person with some of his described attributes might have been the basis of the legend.

But let’s use my points from above to examine the Jesus myth. Are there any physical elements which we could check against facts? Well yes, there are. There are several events described in the Gospels which we could check, such as the star described (in just one Gospel) at the birth, the darkness at the crucifixion, not to mention the saints rising from their graves at that time.

There should be obvious historical references to these, but there’s nothing. Not a thing. And that’s just the beginning. There are ridiculous inconsistencies in the different portrayals of his alleged life. And those are just between the four gospels arbitrarily chosen as canon by the early church. If you look at the other alternatives they conveniently ignored then the situation is much worse.

So really, no sensible, honest, knowledgeable person can possibly take the Christian story seriously as a statement of fact. So why do so many, quite intelligent people do that? Well it’s simple self-delusion in most cases. These aren’t bad, or ignorant, or corrupt people in most cases, they have simply fooled themselves.

Finally, what about the philosophical and moral messages of Christianity? Well I freely admit there are some good, positive moral stories in the New Testament. But there are a lot of really horrible stories too. And there is a lot of good, positive philosophy in many other sources. So my conclusion is that we should use the Bible, along with every other source we can find, to guide us on our path to establishing our own personal morality.

In fact, I think that is what everyone does anyway. Even people who say their morality comes from a god, or a holy text, or a prophet are really fooling themselves. Their morality comes from themselves because it is they who decide which god, which holy book, or which prophet to follow. And it is they who decide how to interpret those sources. In the end, their morality is no more objective, absolute, or inspired than mine.

Well I think I’ve said enough at this point because this post is already longer than what I usually try to write. If anyone can see an error in my logic please comment. I’m more than happy to correct any errors I have made in either fact or logic.

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A New Zeitgeist

December 22, 2016 Leave a comment

I have often mentioned the concept of the zeitgeist in my blog posts. It is one of my favourite concepts and one of my favourite words too (German words are often very useful because they have specific meanings). I you need a reminder of it’s meaning, it is (according to the Oxford Dictionary): the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.

For the period from the 1970s to the early 2010s there has been a clear belief (well, I thought it was clear, anyway) in commercialism, political and economic elites, and free markets. There have been great promises made that following these will bring great benefits to everyone, primarily through the famous “trickle down” effect where greater wealth held by corporate leaders is somehow distributed to the lower echelons too.

But that doesn’t seem to have worked, because the gap between rich and poor is now utterly obscene.

It might be argued that although the gap has widened greatly, in absolute terms everyone is better off, but that is far from clear, apart from in emerging economies like China. And it is a well known psychological effect that people measure their wealth (and well-being in general) in a comparative way.

Clearly there is significant dissatisfaction at the way the world is being run today. The most obvious “protest vote” against the political establishment is Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election, but there are many other indicators across the globe.

As I have said in the past, I welcome revolt against the establishment (being a fairly anti-establishment person myself) but the danger here is what alternatives will people choose?

I have said in the past that I am not as anti-Trump as many other people are. I am very concerned about some of his opinions and some of the people he has appointed to positions of power, but I am also prepared to give him a chance. But he is an example where potentially an anti-establishment (Clinton clearly represented the existing political elite) vote might have resulted in the unleashing of something even worse!

Whatever the outcomes of this change might be, the fact is there is an appetite for change and it seems to be a global phenomenon. There clearly is a new zeitgeist emerging. At the moment it is just the thought that we don’t want what we have now, and protectionism, localism, and conservatism seem to be preferred, but it will hopefully (but not necessarily) lead to something more positive.

And there is another factor on the horizon which will force an even greater degree of change than the social, economic, and political factors I have bene considering so far. That is the true computer revolution.

What has happened so far has been significant but it will look minor compared with what is soon to come. Robots and intelligent machines will take over many jobs, virtual and augmented reality will blur the line between the real and virtual world, super-fast and reliable internet will make distance irrelevant, 3D printing will make manufacturing complex items easy, and (most importantly) artificial intelligence will finally fullfil its promise.

Already companies are saying that many professions will be taken over by AI (for example, accounting will become almost obsolete according to some), that many less skilled jobs will also disappear thanks to automated machines (self-driving vehicles, for example), and that abundant energy and goods will make existing economics obsolete.

Whatever small changes people imagine today will seem trivial compared with what is coming. We need a total change in thinking. We need a new zeitgeist.

The Golden Quarter

December 14, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an article titled “Aviation is flying into exciting times” which claimed to list the most exciting new developments in aviation which are about to happen. The list included: more choice of airlines and better prices; more connectivity (basically, internet services in flight); new planes and cabins including the B787, A350 and upgraded 777s; better loyalty schemes; and some new equipment for New Zealand’s air force (actually just aircraft which have been around for a while but are still newer than the rather ancient Hercules we have now).

That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it? Well if you are still awake after reading that compelling list (not) you will probably answer “no, not really”.

And it isn’t. One reason I find it a bit uninspiring is that I have just finished reading Jonathan Glancey’s book “Concorde: The Rise and Fall of the Supersonic Airliner”. And I have also spent some time researching the “The Golden Quarter”, which is the idea that many of our greatest cultural and technological achievements happened between 1945 and 1971, and that progress has stalled since then.

I’m not totally convinced that the idea of technological and social stagnation in the last 45 years is true, but I do see some signs that the ideas has some merit, and I have commented on similar ideas before coming across the Golden Quarter concept.

If I compare the world of 1971 with today there are very obvious technological changes, especially in the area of computing and communications. Also, every other significant area of technology has progressed very obviously.

For example, the cars of today are hugely superior to those of the 1970s. They are far more reliable, far more powerful, better handling, have better economy, and they are a lot safer. And despite what I said in the first paragraphs of this post, modern aircraft are much more advanced than aircraft of the 70s in similar ways.

But this is all about evolution rather than revolution. And building aircraft with good fuel economy and safety is important, but it doesn’t have the same “cool factor” as building a commercial airliner which can travel at over double the speed of sound! In comparison, current commercial jets fly at about 0.8 to 0.9 times the speed of sound.

Here are a few things which are claimed to have come from the Golden Quarter:
electronics, computers and the birth of the internet, nuclear power, television, antibiotics, space travel, civil rights, the pill, feminism, teenage culture, the Green Revolution in agriculture, decolonisation, popular music, mass aviation, the gay rights movement, cheap reliable cars, high-speed trains, a man on the Moon, a probe to Mars, the elimination of smallpox, and the discovery of the structure of DNA.

I tried to get a list of significant achievements since then and they might include: the Hubble Space Telescope, the LHC, the discovery of gravitational waves, gene sequencing, huge advances in the power and price of computers, and the modernisation of certain countries (China, India) leading to a better standard of living.

Sure, it’s significant, but compared with the first list it’s not that impressive, is it?

And what about the areas where we are (or seem to be) going backwards? Conservative and nationalistic politics seems to have become popular. The total number of people affected by conflict is reducing but there are still many examples of war and terrorism around the world. Science funding seems to be becoming more difficult, and science is more often asked to contribute to commercial solutions rather than perform much more important fundamental research.

So if my hypothesis is correct, what went wrong?

I think it is just a phase we are going through, which started in the 1970s, when the current political-economic environment began. Clearly people are getting rather sick of all the unfulfilled promises and things are now changing. Unfortunately they appear to be becoming even more repressive, irrational, and unprogressive than before.

So unfortunately it looks like we really are heading down hill, and I don’t think we will have another golden quarter in the foreseeable future.

McLaren Spin Out

December 7, 2016 Leave a comment

One of my main areas of interest is cars. Although unfortunately my current (and most likely, future) financial position means I can’t afford a supercar, I do drive a reasonably fast cheap car (a twin turbo Subaru) and keep up with the latest car news and trends.

Maybe the supercar manufacturer I admire most is McLaren. That’s because they produce brilliant cars, including what is arguably the greatest car ever, the F1 (produced in the 1990s). I admire the F1 so much that I wrote a blog post specifically about it, titled “Favourite Things 4” and posted on 2013-02-17.

Recently there was a convoy of McLaren cars touring New Zealand, which included an F1 which had an estimated value of $20 million! Unfortunately the cars didn’t reach my home town so I didn’t get to see them, and the F1 was actually involved in a fairly serious crash just a couple of days ago.

The organisers of the tour claim the driver wasn’t exceeding the speed limit, but skid marks 80 meters long were found near the crash site. Now, I haven’t tried this, but my car (which as I said has good performance but obviously nowhere near that of the F1) can stop from the speed limit in less than 40 meters. So it seems to be that the driver of a car capable of 4 times our speed limit (yes, that is 400 kph or 240 mph) might have been going just a tiny bit faster than 100. And who could blame him? I know I certainly would be!

But the really intersting aspect of this event, and the thing which encouraged me to write a blog post, is the way McLaren handled the accident. They were on the scene fairly quickly offering large sums for photos, and covering the car with a cover, the name badges with tape, and then removing it as quickly as possible. I thought the protection of their corporate image was bit over the top.

And it’s not the first time. McLaren make another car called the P1 (yes, I know their names aren’t so inspirational) which is one of the “holy trinity” of modern, hybrid supercars (the other two being the Porsche 918 and the Ferrari LaFerrari). Car enthusiasts have wanted a comparison of these cars for years but McLaren has been uncooperative.

To be fair, so has Ferrari, threatening owners with having their cars confiscated if they allowed them to be used in a comparison race. I know, could you make this stuff up? Only Porsche seem to be fairly relaxed about having their cars used however the owners wanted.

One common measure of performance, car enthusiasts often use, is Nurburgring lap times. McLaren did this test but never released the result. The Porsche 918 has the best recorded time for a standard road car (there are better times but they are for open-wheel, quite specialised cars). Again, McLaren seems to be playing corporate games.

The first episode of “The Grand Tour”, the new program featuring the hosts of the old Top Gear, managed to test all 3 cars and found the Porsche was the fastest and the McLaren the slowest. Of course, this was a rather informal test on a specific track with a specific driver, so we shouldn’t read too much into it. But it is an indicator that the P1 isn’t quite as good in real life as it should be. I do have to say that even though the Porsche and Ferrari were faster, the P1 was still incredibly fast, and not far behind the other two.

Now to move on to my more general point. There are obvious parallels between Apple and McLaren. In fact, recently there were talks between the two and a rumour that Apple wanted to buy or invest in McLaren in some way. At the very least they both represent great engineering and premium pricing. And while they both represent great products they also both suffer from questionable corporate ethics.

So people ask me as an Apple fanboy (I use Apple computer products almost exclusively) and as a fan of McLaren cars, what I think of them as corporates. Well, like almost every corporation (or maybe that “almost” isn’t necessary): they suck!

I have a theory (which is based around my personal political biases rather than any real empirical evidence) that there are two types of big business: successful ones, and moral ones. For anyone who works in IT you just have to choose which immoral corporation you will tolerate. And for any car fan you have to choose which products you like while trying to ignore the corporate malfeasance shown by the manufacturer.

There is no doubt that large corporations do achieve some excellent results, and that some projects do need extensive teams that only larger organisations can provide, but I can’t help but think that things would be even better if the power of the corporates was significantly curtailed. I think things have gone a bit too far towards greater dominance by corporations.

We don’t really need that. We don’t need dodgy tax deals, we don’t need dominant companies forcing their inferior technology on us, and we definitely don’t need any more corporate spin!

Goodbye, John Key

December 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Today New Zealand’s prime minster, John Key, announced that he would retire as PM and party leader. It seems to have been a big surprise to everybody, including me, because he has been consistently popular and still maintains that popularity today.

His party, National, is New Zealand’s center-right party and one that I would not normally support because my politics tends to be a bit more to the left, but I do have to say that, in general, I found Key’s leadership fairly easy to accept because he was what I would call a moderate and pragmatic leader.

He did sell some assets (what center-right party wouldn’t, even when it makes no sense) but a less than a 50% share. He did cut taxes to the rich (yeah, there’s nothing much good that can be said about that) but also introduced higher minimum pay. He did allow fishing companies to plunder our fisheries, but also introduced some worthwhile environmental changes. He did some effort to reduce climate change, but he didn’t force farmers to accept their responsibility in that area.

So it was a pretty average effort overall, but still orders of magnitude better than any other National prime minister we have ever had, especially some of the miserable excuses for human beings who preceded him, like the truly revolting Jenny Shipley.

On the other hand, what is maybe his biggest failure, is the one thing that I am quite happy he failed to deliver. That is the TPPA (trans-Pacific partnership agreement) trade deal, which was rejected by the biggest treaty partner, the US, by Donald Trump (it was also likely to have been cancelled by Hillary Clinton). That wasn’t Key’s fault, but it was one of his signature policies so he must accept it as a failure.

So who will replace Key as New Zealand’s new prime minister? Well, I do have to say that I find the rest of the National Party to be completely uninspiring. I have said that I will move to Canada if Judith Collins is the new PM. The most likely person will be Bill English, the current finance minister, who is completely underwhelming, but relatively safe.

I haven’t thought about this too carefully yet, but I do quite like Amy Adams, so if she won the leadership I might be fairly happy. She was a lawyer so that’s a mark against her, and she currently owns 3 farms, so that’s another huge mark against her. But this is the National Party and you can’t be too fussy. After all, you don’t join a party like that because of your high moral standards!

Many people would say that John Key was single-handedly responsible for the National Party’s recent success so this does make the next election, in less than a year, more interesting. Maybe the opposition will now have a chance to make some progress in the polls. Maybe the center-left might even win. That would be good because New Zealand does tend to do better when the left are in power rather than the right.

Whatever happens, we probably won’t get another PM like Key again for a while. I do have to admit he was a hard man to dislike. He could be kind of goofy, and some times a bit creepy (do I need to mention the pony-tail incident?) but in general he seemed like a fairly decent person. And that’s all we can really expect for anyone in that position.

Is Islam a Cancer?

December 1, 2016 10 comments

According to a recent news item I read, Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has called Islam a “cancer”. It’s an interesting claim, and one which most people would either agree or disagree with depending on their political persuasion, without really thinking about it.

But at this blog I like to think about a claim before passing judgement on it, so let’s have a look at the idea to see if it has any merit.

First of all, I don’t think anyone thinks this claim should be taken literally. I mean, obviously Islam isn’t actually a cancer, because a cancer is “a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body” according to the Oxford Dictionary. But there is a more metaphorical sense, which is “an evil or destructive practice or phenomenon that is hard to contain or eradicate”. Clearly, this sense is more interesting.

The next problem is what do we mean by “Islam”? Are we referring to the religion, or the political view, or the group of people who follow certain beliefs? And are we referring to the whole of those phenomena or just the extremes, or more literal parts? I’m guessing we mean the religious belief system based on the ideas attributed to Mohammed in the Koran, and supplemented by material in the Hadith, and to all parts of that worldview apart from where the ideas have been so liberalised that they are virtually unrecognisable.

So is the traditional form of Islam (the religion) an evil or destructive practice or phenomenon that is hard to contain or eradicate? I think a very good case could be made to say that this is true, although I probably wouldn’t use the word “evil” because it has too many religious connotations, but surely destructive isn’t over-stating the case.

The next question is, do the good parts of Islam (because every belief system has good and bad parts) outweigh the bad? That is difficult to evaluate because as an atheist from a country which has a small number of Muslims it’s hard to get a fair idea of what the good parts are. Clearly many people find it compelling because they base their lives around it, and in the past Islamic scholars have made huge contributions to the world, but whether that is enough is debatable.

Next we must evaluate whether other religions are just as bad, which might indicate that Islam is being unfairly singled out from the others. Interestingly there are a wide variety of opinions on this. Only a small fraction of violence in the US is initialed by Muslims, but if you look at the list of international terrorist incidents on Wikipedia the vast majority have a direct link with Islam (although I sometimes suspect that if Islam is involved in an act of violence it is more likely to be categorised as terror, therefore this isn’t entirely fair).

And not only do Islamic groups cause a large number of incidents, they also seem to be responsible for the most horrendous and violent acts. Groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, Jundallah, Al-Shabaab, Taliban, and others, are not only mindless killers, they are also sadistic torturers of innocent people.

It seems very clear at this point that Islam is the source of far more problems than any other religion. I agree that it has not always been like that and may not be that way in the future, but it is now.

So I think that any religion – when taken too seriously – could be thought of as a sickness. But it is better to say what we really think, without the shortcuts, or memorable sound bites. Let’s say this: “any irrational belief, including religion, when taken to extremes, is clearly bad for both the individual and society as a whole.”

It’s not quite as catchy as calling a whole belief system a cancer, but it’s a lot more accurate.