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Cosmological Musings

November 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently I have listened to a few podcasts featuring some of the most well known scientists of today. Specifically, I mean Lawrence Krauss, Sean Carroll, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. These aren’t general scientists obviously, since they all specialise in physics and cosmology, but that’s the area I want to concentrate on in this post.

I admire these three in particular for a number of reasons: first, they are clearly brilliant and highly intelligent people, or they wouldn’t have got to the positions they have; second, they are good public communicators of the often difficult subjects they specialise in; and third, they aren’t scared to call out BS where they see it, and Carroll and Krauss in particular are very critical of religion and other forms of irrationality.

But it isn’t the politically or socially controversial topics I want to cover here, it is the scientifically contentious or speculative stuff instead. So let’s get started talking about some of the more speculative ideas I have heard discussed recently. Note that these aren’t necessarily directly attributable to the people I mentioned above, and they represent my interpretation of what I have heard, and I am not an expert in this subject. But that has never stopped me before, so let’s go!

The origin, and underlying nature of the universe is not well understood. This has been a problem for a while, because the actual point where the Big Bang started is hidden in a singularity of infinite density. Physics breaks down there, just like it does in a black hole, so nothing much can be said about it with any certainty. It is possible to use existing theories to get really close to time zero – a tiny fraction of second – but beyond that is inaccessible to current theories.

And the best direct evidence we have comes from the light of early galaxies and the cosmic microwave background (CMB). But even the CMB only formed after 300,000 years, which is s small fraction of the age of the universe (13.7 billion years) but still not as early as we would like.

So clearly this is a difficult subject, but here are a few observations and speculations about the universe which might assist in understanding what is going on…

The first point is that the total energy of the universe might be zero. This seems totally absurd on the surface, because of all the obvious energy sources we see, like stars, and all the mass which we know is the equivalent of energy through the famous equation E=mc^2. But that’s where a convention in physics makes the reality quite different from what most people intuitively believe.

Gravitational energy has always been thought of as negative. This is nothing to do with the Big Bang or cosmology, it is just a natural consequence of the maths. If we accept this it turns out that the gravitational energy of the universe cancels the other energy exactly. So the universe has zero energy which means that any process making a universe can do so easily, meaning there could quite conceivably be an infinite number of them.

While some people dismiss this as a “trick” it really isn’t. If cosmologists had said something like “we need to get the total energy to zero so let’s just say gravity is negative and voila!” then that would be a trick. But this was an established fact long before the total energy of the universe was being considered and this gives it far more credibility.

And while we thinking about the idea of more than one universe, what about the idea that there could be many universes – each with slightly different properties – which might explain why many of the properties of our universe seem to be quite well tuned for the existence of life?

What I am saying here is that various constants seem to have values which make chemistry possible and that, in turn, makes life possible. But there seems to be no reason why the constants could not have totally different values and this could lead to a universe where stars could not form, and no stars means no energy source for life.

And the old argument about life which is entirely different from the type we see now doesn’t really save us because any form of life needs both energy and heavy atoms, and stars are the only likely source for these.

But if there are an infinite, or very large, number of universes, with different constants, then it is inevitable that some will have the values which make life possible. In fact, it’s possible to imagine a universe which is even better than ours for life, so there could be many which have life. In fact, if there are an infinite number of universes, there will be an infinite number with life as well!

A concept I have sometimes heard in both pop science and science fiction is the idea that at very large scales and very small scales there might be other universes hidden. For example, an atom could be a universe made of its own tiny atoms which in turn could be universes, etc. And going the other way, our universe could be an atom in a bigger universe above ours, ad infinitum. This idea might arise from the popular notion that an atom is like a miniature solar system (which it isn’t).

It’s a cute idea, but unfortunately it can be ruled out by applying the laws of physics. Sub-atomic particles have no details and no uniqueness. For example, every electron is a single point (or “cloud” of probability) with no structure and which is completely indistinguishable from every other electron. This doesn’t seem like a good candidate for a whole universe!

What about the “oscillating universe” or “big crunch” theory? This is the idea that the universe expands but the expansion slows down until it stops at a certain point, then it starts contracting again, reaches a singularity, and is “reborn” in a new Big Bang. At this point any vestige of the old universe is erased and all the energy is replenished. This would be a process which recurs infinitely in both the future and past.

This is quite an appealing notion, because it tells us what was before the current Big Bang, and previously it was thought that gravity might have been slowing the rate of expansion. Unfortunately for this theory new evidence shows us that the rate of expansion is actually increasing, because of dark energy, so the contraction and “Big Crunch” can never happen.

There’s nothing fundamental in physics which seems to stop processes running backwards in time. I have heard an idea that maybe the universe was created as a result of a signal sent backward from a future form of the universe itself. This removes the need for an initial cause which in turn might need a cause, leading to an infinite regress of causes.

Signals going back in time should be considered somewhat controversial, of course, because of the principles of causality, so I would be hesitant to take this too seriously unless some clarification on the exact mechanism arose.

Here’s another one: new universes appear inside black holes created in existing universes. These universes all have slightly different attributes than the universe they came from, but inherit the starting parameters from them.

This is nice because it sets up an “evolution” model where “the survival of the fittest” applies to whole universes! Only universes which can make black holes will create new universes. To create a black hole the universe needs to have a fairly long life, a way to concentrate matter, a way to allow matter to “condense” out of energy, etc. These attributes also lead to laws and constants suitable for the development of life.

Clearly this is difficult to evaluate because we don’t know what happens inside black holes, because as I said above, the infinite density of matter causes current theories to break down. There is no compelling reason to think universes are formed from black holes so it’s probably best to disregard this idea unless some new, relevant information becomes available.

Finally, how about the idea that the purpose of a universe is to allow intelligent life to form which, in turn advances to the point where it figures out how to make universes?

This also sets up a potential evolutionary scenario, but we have no idea whether any intelligent life form, no matter how advanced, could create a universe, so again this seems to be somewhat unworthy of spending too much time speculating about at this stage.

Well, wasn’t that fun! Obviously we don’t know the truth about the origin or fundamental nature of the universe, not because we have no ideas, but because we have too many! I’m fairly sure that when real theories are created to explain these phenomena that none of what I have said here will be the real explanation, but it’s still fun to speculate!

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Genesis Version 2.0

November 27, 2017 Leave a comment

Prologue

Yahweh needed a purpose. He was the most powerful entity in the metaverse, yet what had he ever achieved? It was time to do something great, and the only thing which would be worthy of his abilities was to create a universe. In fact it seemed like this was his entire reason for existing. Yahweh performed the calculations and determined what would be needed.

And he started creating…

First, he created a planet where he could experiment. It was covered with water because that was the basis for the chemistry he had decided to use. Despite the water, he called it Earth.

Then he created light, because, obviously his new universe would need to be visible to everyone, including the various conscious entities he might create.

But he realised the light might hide most of the magnificence of the universe he was creating, because the stars and galaxies – which he would soon create – could only be appreciated in darkness. So he decided to stop the light regularly and made darkness.

Then he built a realm where his creations could be brought to so they could interact with him. While he wanted to remain mostly seperate, some intervention might also be needed. This was hidden from everyone except him, and he called it Heaven.

And he needed some dry land so that there would be another habitat for the various species he would bring into existence. So he caused the waters to recede and uncover the solid earth.

And Yahweh was happy so far with what he had done. He thought it was good.

With the basics out of the way, it was now time to start on the interesting stuff. He needed some organisms capable of using the light to make energy for themselves, and ultimately all living things. These would be plants and he devised a clever trick he called photosynthesis to allow them to do this.

Again, Yahweh saw that things were going according to plan. This was good.

But at this point he realised he had made a small mistake. The light had no obvious source and he didn’t want his part in making this universe to be too obvious. So he created the Sun to be the main light source, and just for some added interest, a Moon as well. Of course, not being content with a single solar system, Yahweh created a few trillion galaxies of hundreds of billions of suns, for no real reason except to show just how powerful he really was!

After that he considered the universe so far wasn’t yet great, but it was good.

Now was the time to create animals to populate his world. He made many species to live in the seas and fly in the sky, then he made animals to live on the solid ground. And here he used his most subtle and clever idea: the animals had a fixed life-span, but could reproduce with minor variations in the next generation. He figured this should create many interesting new forms in the future.

So yes, Yahweh also thought this was good.

Finally it was necessary to carry out the final step: to create an intelligent species modelled, somehow, on himself.

And that was it. His universe was completed. Yahweh congratulated himself, pronouncing it “very good”…

A Lesson in Theology

Dan looked up from his control console, turned to his colleague, Jerry, and said “any idea what’s gone wrong?” only to receive an exasperated shrug in return.

The power use had been far over what they expected for some time now, and no one seemed to be able to figure out why. The initial testing should have been carried out at a low level of computation, and that would have meant low power use too – at least as low as a computer with a quadrillion bytes of storage could be expected to use.

If things didn’t get better soon they would need to call the old man himself. He designed this contraption so maybe he could get it to respond to basic instructions. But Dan didn’t want to do that yet because he was treated like a modern prophet by his colleagues, and his reputation was on the line. They would work on regaining control and bringing the power down for a bit longer before calling for help.

He said “Do you know anything about the old man? He created this thing but I’ve never seen him around here. He seems to live in his office upstairs but we never see him – it’s almost like he’s invisible. And he really is an odd one – I heard he still believes that old religion that was popular 50 years ago. Do you know anything about that?”

Jerry knew he was being baited about his “useless” qualifications but replied, “You know I did a theology degree, don’t you. That’s why I work in IT. But yes, you’re right, he still believes in a religion called Christianity, which was very big a few decades ago. It was an odd mixture of traditional superstition, sacrifice, and strange rituals, and had some quite interesting ideas about pacifism and tolerance, too.”

“Well it’s all crazy as far as I can tell,” observed Dan, “what use could it be in solving problems like what we have here now?”

Jerry saw his opportunity to tease his friend a little bit, and said “Why do you think he gave the computer the name he did? Does the name mean anything to you?”

Dan looked indignant, but said “Well, he called it YAHWEH, which stands for yottabyte analytical hypothesiser with extended heuristics. I’ve never heard the name before in another context, but it seems to make a lot of sense to me, after all that’s what it does. What exactly are you trying to suggest?”

Laughing, Jerry said, “Did that name ever seem a bit contrived to you? I mean, sure it has a yottabyte of memory and heuristics are an important part of its super-intelligence, but the rest seems more made up to fit the name, rather than the other way around. I know there is an old tradition in IT of doing this, but why would he choose the name of the old Christian God?”

Dan wasn’t convinced so he replied, “Well you could be right, but so what? Even if he named his computer after the god from his old fairy story, that doesn’t prove anything, except that he is even crazier than we previously thought.”

Jerry decided to take a different tack. “You know he is also interested in the ideas of the philosopher Nick Bostrom, don’t you. He specifically warned us against super-intelligent computers, but here’s another thing he is well known for that might interest you: he also had an argument, which he didn’t necessarily believe himself, that our universe is a simulation running in a super-intelligent computer in another, presumably real universe. It was called the simulation argument.”

By now Dan was starting to look a lot more uncertain, and said “You don’t think that’s what the old man is up to, do you? I mean, is this computer running a simulation of another universe? Does it really have the capacity to do that? Has it just created its own universe, with living conscious people like us? With a name like that, maybe it really does think it’s a god.”

Jerry looked thoughtful and said, “If it had created a universe with conscious simulated life do we have the right to terminate it? After all, if Bostrom is right, we could be part of a simulation too. How would you like if it the computer our universe is being simulated in was reset?”

But Dan wasn’t accepting any of this. He argued, “That’s the problem with theology, you can make a story full of intersting details but without a scrap of evidence to support it. Surely you don’t think we will ever need to make that decision, do you?”

Jerry glanced down at his console and suddenly went pale, he whispered “I don’t know, but I just found the name of the program it’s running. It’s called Genesis…”

Good or Bad

November 18, 2017 Leave a comment

While I’m in the middle of a phase of religion bashing I thought it might be a good time to resurrect (an ironic choice of word) the old subject of religion in schools. This has appeared as an issue in the media here a few weeks back, so the subject is topical.

In the past, I have sort of shrugged off the issue saying something like, the young people nowadays are too smart to be taken in by some blatantly transparent myths and are likely to consign religion to the same category of fiction as the Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones.

This is no doubt true in most cases. Because, there is certainly reason to think that our civilisation’s childhood, where it relied on ancient traditional stories as a basis for cultural identity, is now starting to reach a conclusion, and we are growing up and abandoning the imaginary invisible man in the sky.

Here in New Zealand the “no religion” group is about to reach 50% of the population. Additionally, as I have said in the past, most people who indicate Christian as their religion on the census don’t really have any commitment to that belief and never attend church, read the Bible, or even really know much about it.

But it’s when previously powerful belief systems are threatened that they can become most dangerous. It’s a bit like a wild animal’s attack reflex when it’s cornered. So we should be especially careful now that churches don’t make a last ditch stand before they are consigned to the rubbish heap of bad ideas like all their predecessors. And maybe even more worryingly, we need to be careful that even worse religions, like Islam, don’t fill the void left by Christianity.

As I said above, most kids will not be taken in by the silly stuff they are taught in Bible in schools. But it is not the well-balanced, sensible, practical majority we need to worry about. It is the out of touch, emotionally and intellectually immature minority which are most at risk.

As I write this I realise that perhaps I have “shot myself in the foot” to a certain extent, because you might make a case to say that it is those who are not coping well who might have most to gain from joining a church and getting extra support and friendship.

I’m sure that there are some people who actually are better off joining a religion, and I have never argued for complete eradication of religion – at least I can’t recall an occasion, although I might have done during one of my more extreme rants! On the other hand, there might be more appropriate groups than a church those people could gain even more from, without the need to resort to superstition.

At this stage it is apparent that I am still conflicted on this subject. Don’t misunderstand, I am totally committed to the idea that religions are fake and have little purpose beyond that which can be provided far better by other knowledge systems (science for facts, philosophy for values), but fake stuff can still have value for certain people.

In the final analysis, this subject is just like every other: it is not a matter of black and white, or good and bad, just like I have so often said in past blog posts. I think that if kids were taught positive philosophical beliefs or given instruction in comparative religion in schools that would be of far more value than simple indoctrination in the dominant religion of the time, but maybe traditional Christian instruction – as along as it is controlled and doesn’t turn into aggressive proselytising – is OK.

Unfortunately the temptation to regress to aggressive conversion – with the threats of torture in Hell for unbelievers, etc – is just too likely according to many reports in the media. So maybe it would be be best just to expel religions from schools because of current bad behaviour.

Well, this blog post has certainly turned out to be one of my most indecisive ever! So, in summary, religion in schools. Good or bad? Well, yes… yes, definitely good or bad.

Is This Paradise?

November 8, 2017 Leave a comment

It seems that there has been a continuous stream of leaks showing the greed, dishonesty, and utter lack of moral values of the rich elite in society. The latest leak, the so-called “Paradise Papers” is the biggest yet, and although it doesn’t show anything technically illegal (at least not when this post was written), it does show us yet another loathsome exhibition of self-centered and cynical greed.

It’s not the people or organisations who are only just surviving and cannot afford to pay any more tax who make use of these tax havens, it is more those who have so much already that they could afford to pay out far more tax and barely even notice. Yes, too much is never enough for these people. They always want more, no matter what the consequences.

And there are consequences. All around the world people are dying by the thousands every day because health systems are failing. Education standards are dropping because schools are increasingly under-funded. Infrastructure in even the richest countries is failing. And at the same time the Queen of England, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and all the other usual suspects have so much spare cash they barely know what to do with it.

Is this what we signed up for when we gave tacit approval for modern capitalism to control our lives? I don’t think so.

When we are told that people are dying on waiting lists because there is no money to treat them in hospitals, I say that is a lie. The money exists but it is tied up in dodgy deals in Bermuda. The rich are almost literally murdering people every day because of their grossly offensive need to have more. No matter how much they have it is never enough, and no price is too much to pay for more, as long as it is not them who has to pay it.

It is a truly immoral and disgusting system we have in place. But to add insult to injury, it is even worse when we acknowledge how widely supported this is, even by those who are the most disadvantaged. Because as well as being skilled in the fine art of greed the ruling elite are also masters of propaganda!

So let’s have a look at some of the arguments they use to justify the situation we find ourselves in.

1. The rich earned their money and they deserve to keep it.

It is rare for any rich person to have actually done anything to earn their wealth. Most wealth is generated by investing in profitable deals. This might be currency trading, investing in a new company which has become successful through its creator’s hard work, buying property then gathering rent. Do these sound like worthwhile activities which should be rewarded with millions or even billions of dollars per year? If you think so then you really should reconsider your moral standards.

2. The rich pay taxes according to the rules, just like everyone else.

Everyone, the rich included, must know that the rules are easy to avoid if you can afford to pay for enough expensive but unethical lawyers and accountants. Even if it is possible to bypass tax laws the rich don’t have to do that. They go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying tax and they must know that it is bordering on illegal. If they have so much already what would be the harm in paying a bit more tax and making a fair contribution to society?

3. Big business must be encouraged because it provides a lot of jobs.

But does it? Let’s look at an example. A new branch of McDonalds opens in my street and provides work for 5 to 10 people. Isn’t that good? Well, superficially it is, but what is the overall effect of big companies like McDonalds? How many small food outlets close because they cannot compete with the big multinational? I suspect that over the long term far more people lose work than gain. The same applies to big retailers, and every other form of business.

4. Without big business we would have no innovation.

This is clearly untrue. There are certainly some examples where real innovation has come from private business (Xerox and IBM come to mind) but only in a tiny minority of cases. The real progress on the cutting edge of science and technology is coming mostly from universities. Sure, companies like Apple are very good at taking the new technology and turning it into sometimes quite spectacular products, but this isn’t true innovation. Big companies seem to gain new technology more through acquiring new, small startups than doing anything genuinely new themselves.

5. Anyone can join the rich if they just put in the effort.

Well this obviously isn’t true because there is only a certain amount of wealth to be distributed. And when the top few percent have more than everyone else put together, there will obviously always be an inequitable distribution. There are people in all modern countries working far longer hours than most CEOs yet making barely enough to survive. Effort has very little to do with it.

6. The current situation is the natural result of free markets and we can’t change it.

Well markets aren’t free, they are creations of governments. If you think a system where the vast majority of people who are poor pay for an infrastructure that the rich then exploit is an example fo a free market then I think you need to re-evaluate the meaning of the word “free”. And even if the market was free, so what? If it brings the gross inequity we see today I say we should forget about free.

7. Since the world adopted a market economy the majority of people are better off.

This is a difficult one to evaluate but I would say that many people actually aren’t better off compared with how they were under the less extreme economic system of 50 years ago. Also, most of the improvements in life today – such as longer lifespan, better communications, better treatment for disease, etc – comes from science and technology, not business. Again, it’s not as simple as saying the corporate world has had no positive effects on society, it’s more that the benefits often quoted are deliberately over-stated.

But why am I bothering? There should be no surprises in this latest leak. Most people already know how the world works: how the poor subsidise the rich, how the rich are immune to the rules which control the rest of us, how politicians are “owned” by corporations. We all know this, but still it continues, in fact it gets worse.

Well, changes do happen and often quite unexpectedly. I don’t remember the fall of the Soviet Union (another grossly corrupt, yet powerful entity) being predicted by too many people, yet it happened suddenly and rapidly. The same can happen to the current extreme form of global capitalism.

And even if nothing happens I still need to blog about it. It is sort of a cathartic mechanism for me. The indignation and disgust I feel when I hear about the latest excesses of the ultra-rich must be assuaged in some way, no matter how ineffective it might ultimately be.

As I have said in past blog posts: bring on the revolution!

Revolting and Primitive

November 1, 2017 Leave a comment

I like to get involved with controversial topics when I debate people on-line. This sort of makes sense because what sort of interesting debate are you going to have over something that isn’t controversial? When it comes to controversy two topics tend to come to the fore: politics and religion. And if you read this blog you will see these are two of my favourite subjects!

The “discussion” I want to consider here was about who is to blame for the anti-immigrant sentiment which is giving right-oriented politics traction in various parts of the world (the US and Europe in particular).

My hypothesis was that moderate governments have been too lenient – largely through a propensity towards political correctness, and a wish to implement a quick and easy boost to their economies – regarding Muslim immigration into countries like Germany, the UK, and France.

So I made the following somewhat inflammatory remark on the subject: “I’m sure many Muslims are nice people but Islam is a revolting, primitive religion, and you can’t blame people for being worried about it. If moderate parties won’t control the power of Islam then people have to vote for more extreme parties. It’s unfortunate but you can only blame the moderates.”

Notice that, while this could be seen as controversial, I am sticking to my standards of criticising ideas rather than people. I genuinely believe the bit about many Muslims being nice people, because I know some, and they are. But that doesn’t detract from the second idea that the Islamic religious/political belief system itself is not so nice, although “primitive” and “revolting” is possibly a bit on the extreme end of the potential range of criticisms!

Of course, the SJWs immediately jumped on their band-wagon (do they ever leave it?) and criticised me by saying something like “it is you who is revolting and primitive”.

And that’s exactly what I wanted, because I replied with “yes, I often blow myself up and kill innocent children, I don’t let women participate as equals in society, I use stoning and amputation of limbs as a punishment, and I support the death penalty for apostasy”.

Strangely, the SJWs seemed to shut-up after that, although I did get a couple of messages of support!

Often in that situation I would get some reasonably fair counters to my point. People might say I am choosing the worst aspects of Islam and ignoring the best. Or they might say someone who supports those ideas is not a true Muslim. Or they might say other religions and belief systems are just as bad.

I don’t believe any of those ideas hold up to much scrutiny, but at least they are orders of magnitude better than the simple-minded ad hominem I got.

But enough of that indignation at being castigated in such insulting terms, because, as I said, that was exactly what I wanted. What about my response to the possible reasonable responses I listed above?

What about the criticism that I am concentrating on the worst aspects of Islam? Well yes, I am in a way, because those are the aspects which affect me, and the culture I most identify with. If there were a lot of positive aspects which I felt an affinity for I would have mentioned those, but quite honestly I cannot think of anything, except for the very general wish for more diversity to make life more interesting.

Remember that I am criticising Islam here. If I was asked to give my opinion on an individual Muslim I would very likely say that I liked them, because there is so much more to most people than their religion. But for some people there actually isn’t much more. The people who are prepared to kill themselves and others for their religion are very much defined by it. This gets back to my oft-repeated idea that “religion is OK, as long as you don’t take it too seriously”!

But what about the second point, that the people committing atrocities around the world are not motivated by religion, or aren’t true Muslims? This is probably the most pernicious lie that the PC left tell themsleves. We know these people are directly motivated by their religion because they tell us they are. And there aren’t many ideologies, apart from religion and it’s promise of entry into paradise after death, which people are prepared to die for.

And then there’s the idea that other religions (and other “belief systems” such as political ideologies and even atheism) are just as bad as Islam. But are they?

Look at a list of who is responsible for most of the revolting and primitive (there are those words again) acts around the world. In almost every case these are directly motivated by a belief in Islamic religious and political doctrine, including the idea that those who sacrifice themselves for the cause will be admitted to paradise in the after-life, the idea that non-Muslims can be killed or enslaved, and the wish to initiate a final battle where Islam will emerge dominant.

Do we see that from Christians? No, not any more at least, because Christianity has been tamed by modern secular politics. What about Buddhists? Well disappointingly we do to some extent, but not in such a wide-ranging way. Do we see it from atheists? Of course not, because how can having no belief in a religion lead to acting on the associated dogma, because there is none! Do we see it from neo-Marxists or neo-Nazis or any other extreme political group? Again, no, not much.

So it seems to me that my criticism is fair and that none of the responses to it really make much sense, unless you are really desperate to find a way to defend an idea that you think you must defend, irrespective of it’s true harm to the world.

So I don’t regret my comment. As I said, it was on the extreme end of what I really think, but I think I made my point effectively, and that was my intention.

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!

Too Much of a Good Thing

October 11, 2017 Leave a comment

I would broadly classify my political views as liberal left but, as you will be aware if you follow this blog, I have drifted away from a conventional view of that type and increasingly disagree with other people in that particular political camp.

I’m not suggesting at all that I have become a conservative, and when I do political surveys I seem to be just as far left as ever, but I do have difficulty with one area where the left have become intolerable recently: that is in their excessive political correctness.

I have heard the claim that there is no political correctness, just correctness, but this is total nonsense. The views that political correctness supports are all very much a matter of opinion and could easily be argued both ways. For example: is affirmative action just another way to treat one group unfairly in comparison to another? Does it simply create another instance of the problem it is supposed to solve? Even if you are a strong supporter of affirmative action you should at least admit that another interpretation is possible.

But that’s not what happens. In various environments where the PC left rule, even suggesting that an officially condoned measure, like affirmative action, might not be fair or reasonable automatically makes you the enemy and liable to a totally mindless barrage of abuse regarding what a “bigot” or “sexist” or “racist” you might be.

It has got to the point where I welcome those labels, because if you have to be a bigot, sexist, or racist to speak the truth, then that’s just what I will need to be.

But that is an example of another phenomenon the left are guilty of: concept creep. Originally to be a racist (for example but other insulting labels are equally relevant here) you would need to exhibit some fairly extreme behaviour, such as refusing to socialise with another racial group, or actively trying to stop that group participating in society, etc. But now all you have to do is suggest that the same group shouldn’t get extra privileges that others don’t get.

In fact it is the other side who are really the racists. I want everyone to be equal. And I know the argument that to make some groups equal they need extra help. Fair enough, but I disagree. But let’s have a reasonable discussion about this instead of just getting abusive.

The problem here is that by not being reasonable the left actually reduce the potential effectiveness of what they want to achieve. Many people are sickened by the ridiculous political correctness they espouse and that just drives them more to the right (it’s happened to me and to many others).

So it’s like too much of a good thing. Getting equal rights for everyone is good, but by giving extra rights to a group who, in the past were disadvantaged, they go too far and negate the good work already done.

And the failure to engage in reasonable debate about a contentious subject indicates to me that they maybe haven’t thought about it too carefully. I enjoy debating my beliefs because I am confident I can defend them, and if I can’t defend them that suggests maybe I was wrong and should change what I think is true. This is a healthy approach to arguing these points, but it’s not one you see very often from the PC left.

The underlying phenomenon powering this set of beliefs seems to be defending marginalised groups. These groups would include non-whites, women, LGBTQs, the disabled, and Muslims. That is OK. If certain groups have genuine disadvantages let’s try to fix that, but don’t go too far.

These groups should still be open to scrutiny and it should be OK to criticise them when it is appropriate and when the criticism is true. And this word, “true”, seems to be one the left are completely oblivious to.

So if I criticised Muslims because surveys show a large percentage of them partially or totally support some of the violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists, then answer that criticism. Show me why it’s not true, or justify it in some way. Don’t just call me a bigot.

And if I say a lot of the rhetoric created by the “Black Lives Matter” cause is nonsense because, in proportion to the number of crimes involved, blacks actually aren’t targeted by US police to any significant extent more than anyone else (despite there being a few clearly racist cops) then show me alternative statistics which show I’m wrong, or explain why the stats aren’t fair. But don’t just call me a racist.

And if I say that it is girls and women who are by far getting the best outcomes in our education system now and, why do we need to create new programs to make this advantage even greater, then show me the facts that counter this idea. But don’t just call be sexist.

But people very rarely even attempt to come up with points to counter mine, because they don’t know them. My opponents just follow an ideology because that’s what they hear in the politically correct echo chamber they live in. When they do see an alternative view their only reaction is pathetic name calling.

There are points which can be made to counter all three statements I made above, but I don’t think they are very compelling. But a person from the PC left stating those points really well might convince me I’m wrong. But that’s just not what they do.

Until this behaviour ends, the left are doomed I’m afraid. We’re just going to get more of the sort of politics that elected Donald Trump. That was mainly the fault of the left being completely out of touch: of refusing to criticise Muslims, of treating police actions unfairly, and of making the presidential campaign a feminist contest, which they lost.

So to anyone on the left still reading this, please take notice. Your excessive political correctness is just destroying your own opportunities to convert more people to your ideals. Do what you think is right, but avoid too much of a good thing.