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Child or Picasso?

October 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I love thought experiments, and I’m in pretty good company because so did people like Einstein! If you don’t know, a thought experiment is a way to test an idea by applying logic to it through pure thought. It often leads to new ideas (as it did for Einstein in developing the General Theory of Relativity) which might then be tested with experiments in the real world.

So General Relativity is an example of where a thought experiment was used in physics, but they can also be used in other areas, such as philosophy. In previous posts I have talked about the famous “trolley experiments” (originally in “More Morality” from 2007-11-27, and “Would You Press the Button?” from 2013-07-16) which are probably the most well known thought experiments in the area of ethics, and I have a few more in that area I want to discuss in this post.

This is interesting stuff but you have to go from one point to the next honestly. So let’s go through some of these experiments. Here goes…

Philosopher, Peter Singer, likes to challenge his students with the following question: “I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.”

Unanimously, the students say they are morally obliged to rescue the child. He then asks, “assuming you could still perform the rescue, would the distance to the pond, or the nationality of the child matter?” The vast majority say no, they are still obliged to act to rescue the child. He then points out that a similar “rescue” could be achieved with very little effort in time or money by donating to a charity, like Oxfam, who are concerned with saving many lives every day.

Yet few of the students do this. Why not?

Now imagine a burning building with a child trapped inside. You can rescue the child relatively easily, and almost everyone says they would. But there is also an extremely valuable Picasso painting in the house which you will get a $1 million reward for. If you remove it from the fire you won’t have time to rescue the child as well. What should you do? Almost everyone would value the child’s life more and rescue her instead of the painting.

But what could you do with that $1 million? You could save hundreds of lives by donating it to charities, such as the one which provides mosquito nets in Africa. Still, most people would save the child instead. Also note that, if you did do the “logical” thing and saved the painting in order to help thousands of people later, you would probably be charged with a crime for not making a reasonable effort to save the child, as well as suffering the contempt of your friends and family!

But now imagine the building had two rooms. The first room contains the child and the painting, and the second has 5 children. If you grab the painting from the first room and ignore the single child, you can use the painting to prop open the door to the second room and rescue 5. Do you grab the painting then? If you do, what is the difference between doing that and taking it for the monetary value which could be used to save far more than just 5 lives later?

Finally, consider the burning building again. Behind the painting is a lever which releases the 5 children in the room next door. Do you ignore the single child, remove the painting, and activate the lever? Most people would. What about if the lever, through a complex mechanism, activated a food distribution system in Africa and immediately saved a thousand lives? You might still use it. And if the mechanism had a delay of 6 months before the lives were saved? Well maybe and maybe not. And is that any different than distributing the funds from the reward for the painting? In the final analysis, no, but most people treat it as if it is.

It should be clear by now that people’s ethical choices do not depend on a logical treatment of the facts involved in a particular situation. Not only do most people ignore the possibility of making a much more significant contribution later rather than a lesser one immediately, but they also treat the directness of their action as a major factor, rather than the final outcome.

Consequentialism is a philosophical doctrine which states that the best course of action should be judged by its final consequences. Superficially this seems to make sense, but no one can follow this in the real world. And if they tried they would very likely be condemned by others. Not only that, but trying to analyse the options available in a situation like those mentioned above would probably result in a paralysis of uncertainty to many people.

Maybe it’s just as well we act on immediate instincts rather than a careful analysis of the situation we find ourselves in. No philosophical system, including consequentialism, can really answer these questions. And although the answers are usually not obvious there is a significant amount of agreement in what people would do.

Decisions like this are a complex combination of logic, emotion, and social conditioning. And that’s OK, because the end result is usually fairly reasonable even though they make no sense. General Relativity thought experiments are so much easier!

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Don’t Take it Seriously

September 12, 2017 2 comments

They say that people who cannot laugh at themselves leave the job for someone else. I think there is a lot of truth in that idea because too many people take themselves, and their beliefs, far too seriously, and they don’t usually look good as a result.

In the end, most everyday issues which people get upset and very serious about are really unbelievably trivial. As an amateur astronomer and science enthusiast I know enough about the universe as a whole (or maybe even the multiverse) to know that practically everything that people take so seriously is nothing more than the tiniest, most frivolous absurdity when you look at the big picture.

To provide examples I would like to pick on some of my usual targets: managers and other bureaucrats, and religious people.

Recently I commented that a good test for Muslims who would like to move to New Zealand to live would be to have them prove that they don’t take their religion too seriously by eating a pork sausage. That was deliberately provocative, because eating pork is haram (forbidden) by the Quran, except in extreme circumstances such as starvation.

Why would I want to impose such an offensive (according to some people) test? Well, I wouldn’t really, of course, because it was a rhetorical point I was trying to make, rather than a serious one, but this does show how a non-serious point can be effective. Maybe a better test would be to have them have a laugh at a cartoon featuring the prophet Mohammed. Yes, I’m only somewhat more serious about that.

But why have a test at all? Well, people who have extreme views on religion tend to be dangerous. They might be more likely to carry out terrorist acts, for example, because despite the protestations of the politically-correct left, religion is the major motivating factor for most terrorists.

And even if their serious religious “philosophy” doesn’t motivate them to wanting to blow themselves up, along with whatever other innocent people might be in range, it might still encourage them towards other regressive ideas, such as being against equality for women, wanting to punish homosexuals, or wanting to enforce their primitive social standards on others.

Naturally, I would not want anyone to think that this process would stop at Islam. Extremist Christians would also need to be vetted by a similar process. I have plenty of “offensive” cartoons featuring Jesus that they could have a little laugh at. For example: Jesus is hanging on his cross, after a while he dies and the Romans dangle him on strings from the cross like a puppet and reanimate him, people see this and think Jesus has risen from the dead, and the Romans think it’s hilarious!

And it could go beyond religion, too. For example, Apple zealots, like me, could be challenged by having to laugh at a cartoon of Jony Ive making some pretentious pronouncement about his design philosophy (I just Googled that and there are plenty out there).

Many might say that an “offensive” computer cartoon hardly rates at a similar level to an “offensive” religious one, but I disagree. If someone takes their religion more seriously than I take good design of computer technology then they are taking it too seriously, and that’s my whole point. After all, their religion isn’t actually true, so treating it with a bit less sincerity seems entirely sensible.

I know religious people who I like to gently and respectfully debate regarding their beliefs, and I expect to get the same back again. If someone wants to criticise me based on my “beliefs” (I am atheist, pro-science, liberal but anti-political correctness, pro-Apple) then that’s fine – I don’t take it too seriously, at least as long as they don’t.

When I look at the latest HST image of the universe and see thousands of galaxies in a small area of sky smaller than the Moon, and I realise there are hundreds of billions of stars (and presumably hundreds of billions of planets, and probably life, and maybe intelligent life, and just possibly some civilisations far more advanced than ours) in each one, then it’s pretty hard to take the inane assertions of any religion seriously.

It’s also hard to take any debate on what the best type of computer is seriously, it’s hard to take any pathetic rules and regulations created by bureaucrats seriously… hey, let’s just take this to the logical conclusion: you cannot take anything seriously.

So lighten up everyone. We live in a magnificent universe and our problems, thoughts, and beliefs are of no consequence at all, really. Why not just accept the obvious absurdity of human existence and not take things so seriously.

The Hard Problem

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently, while purchasing a few items at a wholesaler I was asked what I was listening to on my phone (because I had my Apple earphones on). I told the person I was listening to a podcast, and when that got a blank response I explained it was like a recorded radio program automatically downloaded from the internet, and that this one was by a philosopher and was mainly about politics. I was asked “are you listening to parliament?” and decided it was best to not try to explain further by making a joke like: “I wouldn’t listen to that because I want to retain what small scraps of sanity I still have.”

But it did emphasise how little most people know or care about many of the things that interest me, including some of the most difficult and obscure problems in science and philosophy today. Now, please don’t think I’m being elitist or arrogant because I know that I am no expert on any of this stuff, I just find it interesting, and knowing more about it is part of my aim to be good at everything but brilliant at nothing!

More recently I listened to another podcast in the same series which dealt with a subject which exactly of the type I mentioned above. That is the hard problem of consciousness. What is consciousness, where does it come from, and what else possesses it, apart from me?

Before I continue I will say what I mean by consciousness here. Basically it is the feeling that I (and presumably others) have that I am an individual, that I have some continuity of existence from the past, that I have some form of free will (or at least the illusion of that) to control the world to some extent. Where does this come from?

The idea which I find most compelling, and the one which I think is generally accepted by the majority of scientists is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the processes which occur inside a brain of sufficient complexity. But some people, especially some philosophers and a lot of theologians, believe it is better explained through dualism. That is the idea that there is something beyond the physical processes of thought occurring in the brain. Maybe that there is a “soul” (not necessarily in the religious sense) which is in final control of the physical processes.

At this stage, all the neuroscience I have heard of gives me no reason to think that anything beyond the purely material exists. But I want to ignore the good, solid stuff like that and consider some idle speculation and thought experiments instead!

Imagine my personal identity, my mind, my consciousness is an emergent property of my brain processes. What would happen if an exact copy of me was made (in something like a Star Trek transporter which copied the original person instead of moving him). Where would my consciousness them lie? The copy would be identical, with an identical brain and identical processes. If my thoughts arose from physical processes would I experience them in both bodies simultaneously?

Alternatively, imagine it was possible to “back up” all the information in a brain and upload it to a computer, then re-establish it after death or injury. What would happen if it was downloaded into a different brain? What would happen if it ran on an artificial brain in the computer itself?

Another disturbing question is how complex does a brain need to be before it becomes conscious? It certainly seems that many animals are self-aware. Surely chimps, dolphins, etc have similar levels of consciousness to humans. What about cats and dogs? Rats and mice? Flies? Where does it end?

And if consciousness arises through the processing power of a brain, can it also arise in an artificial brain, like a sufficiently complex and properly programmed computer? Or does it only arise in “naturally arising” entities. What about in an alien? What if that alien evolved a silicon brain very similar to a computer?

We know that our cells are constantly being replaced, don’t we? Well no, that isn’t exactly true. Different cells have different “life spans”, from a few days up to apparently the life of the individual. Significantly, it is some types of brain neurons which are never replaced. Is it these cells which give us our individual identity?

Now let’s imagine that duality is a better explanation. There are some anecdotes indicating that consciousness apparently exists independently of the body. There are out of body experiences, various phenomena such as ESP, reincarnation, and near death experiences. Some of these seem quite compelling but they have never been confirmed by any rigorous scientific study.

Maybe the brain is just an interface between the non-physical seat of consciousness and the body. If the brain is damaged or dies the consciousness still exists but has no way to interact with the world. It would be difficult to distinguish between that and the emergent phenomenon hypothesis I outlined above so maybe this is one of those theories which is “not even wrong”.

Finally there is computation and maths. The way maths seems to reflect and even predict reality has been a puzzle since the article called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” was published almost 50 years ago. Some physicists have noted that reality seems to almost arise from a form of computation, which seems to explain the effectiveness of maths.

So now we seem to be getting back to the idea that the universe might be a simulation (see my blog post titled “Life’s Just a Game” from 2016-07-06). If it is then the universe was created by someone (or something). Would that thing be a god? And if the individual entities are “just” part of a simulation do they have any less moral rights as a result?

Maybe all of this stuff is “not even wrong” and maybe it is pointless to even speculate about it, but sometimes doing pointless things is OK, just as long as we don’t take it too seriously.

So I think I will continue to listen to philosophical musings rather than the rather more mundane business of politics I hear in parliament. Actually, I think there is room for both, because politics is also a subject I include in my “good at everything” strategy. And one thing is clear: in most subjects being above average isn’t difficult!

Play the Ball

April 11, 2017 Leave a comment

When I engage in one of my (extremely infrequent) rants I often get a bit personal. I often describe the groups (it’s usually a group rather than an individual) under discussion in somewhat unflattering terms. Words like stupid, mindless, bureaucratic, corrupt, incompetent, and (good ol’ plain) scum tend to predominate.

If I use the search function on my blog for the word “scum” I come across criticisms of Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Martin Shkreli, Serco (a company that runs prisons in New Zealand), Alice Walton, the Genesis Energy board, the CEO of BP, a spokesman for Westpac bank, the National government, Ports of Auckland, Affco, Westboro Church, the people in charge of the global financial system in general, Fonterra, the American movie industry, the NZ Evangelistic Society, News Corp, and Theresa Gattung.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? In my defence, I only used the word in 27 posts (out of a total of almost 2000) in almost 15 years of blogging, so I don’t over-use to quite the extent you might think, and there is a good mix there of politicians (usually of the right), corporate leaders, large businesses, and some more unpleasant examples of religious institutions.

But a basic tenet of good debating is to avoid informal logical fallacies, such as the ad hominem. So I should be criticising the idea or action, not the person involved. In other words, I should “play the ball, not the man” (or woman).

Like all informal fallacies though, the ad hominem isn’t necessarily always wrong. Sometimes an individual really does deserve severe criticism. While it might be something which has been done or said that I am most offended by, there’s still a person who who did it or said it, and I’m sure that a lot of bad things done by one person would not be done by another.

The response to criticism is often “I’m just doing my job” which is usually referred to as the “Nuremberg Defence” after the Nazis who used it at the Nuremberg war trials (it’s a real term so this is not an example of me breaking Godwin’s Law). I mentioned this subject in a post “The Nuremberg Defence” from 2014-11-20.

But people always have a choice. Given the same situation some people will make the wrong choice just because it’s easier, or they can use it for their own benefit, or they haven’t bothered checking the true consequences, or for many other reasons. In every case though, these decisions are made as a result of a character flaw in the individual.

I think a “better person” would not have done the same thing. They might not have simply refused an order, but they might have taken steps to minimise its harm, or to work “behind the scenes” to work against it, or at least to carry it out with some element of contrition.

So ad hominem attacks are OK, as long as the reason for the attack is clear. And the attack on the person should follow a reasoned critique of their behaviour, not the other way around. In other words, it is not OK to criticise something because a certain person did it (as I often see with criticisms of Donald Trump’s actions, not all of which are bad) but it is OK to say someone is a bad person because they did bad things (after why those things are bad is logically explained).

Informal logical fallacies are OK but it is important to remember that they are informal and are not infallible. Just because it looks superficially like an ad hominem has been used doesn’t mean the argument can be ignored. It does mean the argument should be looked at more carefully, but it’s important to remember that some people just aren’t as good as others.

And most importantly, it is essential to remember that often the people with the most power also have the greatest character flaws. My “scum list” above shows that very clearly!

What is Reality?

March 21, 2017 Leave a comment

You are probably reading this post on a computer, tablet, or phone with a graphical user interface. You click or tap an icon and something happens. You probably think of that icon as having some meaning, some functionality, some deeper purpose. But, of course, the icon is just a representation for the code that the device is running. Under the surface the nature of reality is vastly more complex and doesn’t bear the slightest relationship to the graphical elements you interact with.

There’s nothing too controversial in that statement, but what if the whole universe could be looked at in a similar way? In a recent podcast I heard an interview with Donald Hoffman, the professor of cognitive science at the University of California. He claims that our models of reality are just that: models. He also claims that mathematical modelling indicates tha the chance that our models are accurate is precisely zero.

There are all sorts of problems with this perspective, of course.

First, there is solipsism which tells us that the only thing we can know for sure is that we, as an individual, exist. If we didn’t then we couldn’t have the thought about existence, but the reality of anything else could be seen as a delusion. Ultimately I think this is totally undebatable. There is no way to prove that what I sense is real and not a delusion.

While I must accept this idea as being ultimately true I also have to reject on the basis that it is ultimately pointless. If solipsism is true then pursuing ideas or understanding of anything is futile. So our whole basis of reality relies on something which can’t be shown to be true, but has to be accepted anyway, just to make any sense of the world at all. That’s kind of awkward!

Then there is the fact that the same claims of zero accuracy of models of the world surely apply to his models of models of the world. So, if our models of reality are inaccurate does that not mean that the models we devise to study those models are also inaccurate?

And if the models of models are inaccurate does that mean there is a chance that the models themselves, aren’t? We really can’t know for sure.

I would also ask what does “zero accuracy” mean. If we get past solipsism and assume that there is a reality that we can access in some way, even if it isn’t perfect, how close to reality do we have to be to maintain some claim of accuracy?

And the idea of zero accuracy is surely absurd because our models of reality allow us to function predictably. I can tap keys on my computer and have words appear on the screen. That involves so much understanding of reality that it is deceptive to suggest that there is zero accuracy involved. There must be a degree of accuracy sufficient to allow a predictable outcome, at the level of my fingers making contact with the keys all the way down to the quantum effects working within the transistors in the computer’s processor.

So if my perception of reality does resemble the icon metaphor on a computer then it must be a really good metaphor that represents the underlying truth quite well.

There are areas where we have good reason to believe our models are quite inaccurate, though. Quantum physics seems to provide an example of where incredibly precise results can be gained but the underlying theory requires apparently weird and unlikely rationalisations, like the many worlds hypothesis.

So, maybe there are situations where the icons are no longer sufficient and maybe we never will see the underlying code.

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.

No Answers

October 19, 2016 7 comments

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.