Archive

Posts Tagged ‘commentary’

A Ponzi Scheme

August 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Everyone has heard of Ponzi schemes, right? If not, here’s the dictionary definition: a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a non-existent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors. It is named after Charles Ponzi who set up elaborate money-making ventures based on the system in the early 1900s.

Typically the first few people involved in the scheme promise to pay huge returns to the “investors” and when these are demanded they are paid from the initial investments made from other investors. It can never last, of course, but the original perpetrators usually try to get out before it all turns bad.

A related scheme is known as a “pyramid scheme”. In these the early “investors” are paid a fee by those they recruit and a lesser amount by those the recruiters recruit, etc. It works as long as new people are recruited, but the “deeper” into the scheme you are the less you will get and the more you will be paying those at the peak.

A unique feature of these schemes is that the organisation or individual running the scheme doesn’t actually need to do anything apart from run the scheme. They don’t need to sell anything or provide any service, for example. The scheme is entirely about shuffling money from one place to another (generally from the “suckers” who sign up late to those who were involved in the initial setup of the scheme).

As we all know, there are some pyramid schemes which also sell products (I’m sure we can all name some) but that is more or less just a cover for the dishonest underlying structure.

I was thinking about this recently and realised that there are many aspects of our modern economic system which make it look like just another Ponzi scheme. The economy only works well while there is “growth” or “increased efficiency or productivity”, yet these aims are totally unsustainable in the long term, and even during the short period that they are sustainable they are often undesirable.

In New Zealand a major election issue is immigration. New Zealand allegedly has a healthy and growing economy – and some stats support this view – yet the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they are doing well. How is this possible? Well basically it gets back to the fact that this alleged “growth” we see in our “rock star economy” is all fake. It is primarily due to increased population, provided by immigration, and no real progress has been made at all.

Unfortunately for the politicians supporting this scheme, it cannot last. Like most rock stars our economy will crash and burn when the excesses of its existence overtake any worthwhile contribution it is making. Eventually everyone will realise they are just being ripped off by a giant Ponzi scheme. But by that time the people in government who have created this situation will probably be gone.

Of course I should point out two things here. First, a pyramid scheme is probably a better description that a Ponzi for the economy, but Ponzi just sounds cooler so it better serves my rhetorical narrative; and second, the economy isn’t a pure Ponzi or pyramid scheme and almost everyone would admit that it works well in some ways.

Despite the obvious and numerous faults in capitalism, for example, it does produce the goods and services the First World needs to maintain its lavish lifestyle. As I have pointed out many times in the past, the system is grossly inefficient, poorly focussed, and generally corrupt, but I would never claim it doesn’t have some good points as well, especially for the original investors in the Ponzi or the people at the top of the pyramid (AKA the 1%).

But it will fail because indefinite growth is impossible and because the 99% who support the people at the top of the pyramid will eventually catch on to what’s really happening and rebel. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Like all Ponzi schemes it will fail and it will probably happen through catastrophic collapse rather than a careful restructuring.

When it happens it won’t be pretty, just like poor old Charles Ponzi’s slow and painful decline and death after all his wonderful and elaborate schemes failed.

Care, Think, Vote

August 10, 2017 Leave a comment

On what might be the most important day of the year so far for New Zealand politics (when the leader of the opposition was changed) a reporter from Radio NZ went out to South Auckland, which is a traditional Labour constituency. She asked what they think of Andrew Little (the old leader) and Jacinda Ardern (the new leader). Here’s what people said…

Reporter: Do you know who the Labour leader is at the moment? [possibly to see if they knew the leader had been changed]

First person: No [nervous laugh], no…

Second person: Umm, no I don’t actually, to be honest, no.

Third person: Ah, no I don’t actually.

Fourth person: Um, not as this morning, unless it’s changed already. [so you would know if it had changed, but not if it hadn’t?]

Fifth person: Um, I forgot his name, but I support him 100% [so that’s full support for someone whose name you can’t remember… OK] Yeah. [when told it was Andrew Little] Andrew Little, oh yeah, that’s his name, yeah. He’s a good guy, he’s a good guy. Yeah. [when told he had quit this morning] Well we needed him for like, you know, to win the election. But, I’m a bit gutted now, yeah.

Sixth person: Um, is it Bill English? [no, that’s the prime minister] Am I right? [reporter: have you heard of Andrew Little before] Um, I think so, maybe, years ago. [poor Andrew, he did have trouble reaching the people]

Seventh person: I don’t know. [reporter: What about Jacinda Ardern] Nope. [reporter:Do you know any Labour MPs] Oh, is Helen Clark one? [her friend laughs, and says “yeah”] There you go, Helen Clark. [she was leader about 10 years ago] [reporter: The new leader is Jacinda Ardern] Oh, OK. Cool, cool. [reporter: What do you think about that?] I think that’s a good idea. She’s young, vibrant, you know, she’ll have a lot of ideas, so yeah. [reporter: Do you know who Kelvin Davis is?] Yeah, I do. [reporter: He’s the new deputy] Is he? Well, that is pretty good, yeah.

Reporter: What would make you want to vote?

Eighth person: Build their “module” on more American style of politics which is more, I guess, showmanship, razzamatazz, probably get us a bit more interested in our politics, ’cause our politicians – no offence – are really quite ugly and boring, [no offense taken, I’m sure] so, it’s hard for millennials when all we care about is Rhianna and Drake. [reporter: What about Jacinda Ardern though] Oh, I don’t know, I mean, she’s no Helen Clark in my eyes, who’s a boss-as bitch. [best… comment… ever]

Overall, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. I mean, even in the past when I had no interest in politics at all I could at least name the leader of the opposition (as well as the PM and a few other key ministers) so the ignorance of these people is truly astonishing. And considering there will be a general election here in a few weeks you might expect political knowledge to be a bit better than this.

But in contrast, when interviewing people in South Dunedin after Jacinda Ardern became the new leader, we got these responses…

First person: Probably better for them, but too late, I don’t think I’d want to be Jacinda and inherit the Labour Party. [The Labour Party has done very well since Ardern took over]

Second person: She’ll be good but they still won’t get in. [This is still uncertain, but they have a lot better chance now than they did before the change]

Third person: She seems really like a typical NZ person with ambition. I didn’t have too much faith in Andrew Little. [Fair call. I actually liked Little, but he didn’t communicate well with the average voter]

Fourth person: I just think it’s cool having a younger person leading a party ’cause you always see these old men. [Another fair call. Some “old men” did connect with the people, but neither the current PM nor any recent previous Labour leader did]

Fifth person: I don’t know enough about her. I know nothing. [Well at least they admit it, and to be fair we don’t actually know much about her]

Sixth person: She’ll probably put everybody off Labour, unfortunately. [Judging by the polling this person could not be more wrong]

Seventh person: She’s charismatic but it’s too close to the election. It’s a bad look for the party. So yeah, maybe next time. [Apparently it is not too close. Things can change very quickly in politics]

So the question must be at this point, considering that everyone has a vote no matter how good or bad their knowledge of politics is, does democracy even work and is it really the right system?

There are a few caveats I should state here…

First, South Auckland is probably an unusually bad area to look for astute political commentary. Maybe other areas might offer a far better level of understanding (and the South Dunedin responses were better, so this idea has some support).

Second, we don’t know if the people on the broadcast were representative of all the people interviewed – maybe they were just 8 bad examples and there were hundreds of extremely knowledgeable people who didn’t appear… yeah, I doubt that too!

Third, is political “trivia” like this a good indicator of a person’s ability to make a well informed and meaningful vote? After all, I am only using naming the leader of the opposition as a proxy for the general knowlege necessary to vote well.

As you can probably tell by my dubious tone above, I’m not very convinced by these ideas. I think that most people do not have good knowledge of politics and current issues, and probably don’t really deserve a vote. But that is a very anti-democratic idea and it would be difficult to establish a system giving some people a vote while denying it to others.

So I guess we get back to that great quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government… apart from all the rest.” Or maybe the Opportunity Party’s tag line should be more appropriate: “Care, Think, Vote.”

Waking Up

August 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I have already mentioned in some past blog posts how interesting I find the ideas of neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris. I recently started listening to his podcast “Waking Up” and before that had read a lot of material he has produced (including the books The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation) and watched many of his debates and lectures on YouTube.

It must be tempting for some of my debating opponents to say “of course you like Sam Harris – he is another militant atheist, just like you” but it goes beyond that. I find everything he says genuinely thoughtful and he doesn’t just fit in with a stereotype such as materialist, anti-theist, or liberal.

I like this because I am always suspicious of people whose ideas closely match a particular political, religious, or philosophical “clique”. For example, in the past it intrigued me how libertarians always supported the idea of free markets but rejected the truth of climate change.

Those two things aren’t really linked in any meaningful way, but if you found someone who thought a laissez-faire economy was a good idea they would probably also think that climate change was a conspiracy. That is not so much true today because climate change is becoming increasingly difficult to deny, but it was common 10 years ago.

And with conservatives it might be common to find other ideas such as aggressive military intervention and being anti-abortion associated. These really do not seem like they should be linked in any way, yet they are.

Finally – and this is something I might have been guilty about in the past before I “woke up” – liberals are also susceptible to this phenomenon. Many would (and still do) believe in strong environmental protection while also being against genetic modification. A strong case could be made that in order to protect the environment genetic modification is almost a necessity, although I admit there are other options as well.

My point here is that it is unlikely that individuals have some to these conclusions based on deep and unbiased examination of the facts. If they did I would expect to see a lot more variation in how the ideas I have listed are linked. For example, there should be a lot more environmentalist who strongly support research into genetic engineering.

It seems far more likely that these ideas have come about as a result of them being “absorbed” from other people in their social group. So if you live in a conservative environment you would absorb diverse attitudes such as being anti-abortion, pro-guns, anti-welfare, etc, while if you came from a liberal environment the exact opposite would be true.

Both Harris and I seem to be less easily classifiable into commonly recognised groups. We get quite strong negative feedback (often it is genuine abuse and threats) from all sides of the political spectrum. Of course, Harris is a well-known public intellectual and I am just an obscure blogger, but I would still like to think we share a lot in common.

So to give you an idea of why I count myself as a “rationalist” rather than any of the more traditional groupings, such as “conservative” or “liberal” or “libertarian”, here is a list of my attitudes on some contentious subjects…

Equality. I think everyone should get a fair chance to succeed and utilise their talents, but I am very suspicious of political correctness and affirmative action. I would be far happier seeing equality achieved in ways which don’t simply give advantages to “minority” groups even if there is good reason to think they are disadvantaged in some situations currently.

Environmentalism. I strongly support environmental protection. I think a natural consequence of unfettered capitalism is the destruction of the environment, so capitalism must be controlled. I tend towards the idea that we must move on from capitalism completely, but in the interim controlling it is sufficient.

Immigration. I think it is good to have some variety in the backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs of people in every country, but I don’t want that to extend to people with extreme beliefs that might destroy the positive character a country already has. For example, for a Muslim to come to New Zealand they should first prove they don’t take their religion too seriously by eating a pork sausage or some similar test!

Free Markets. I understand why people don’t want their government controlling the economy in too fine detail (or at all in some cases) but I can’t see the advantage in handing over control to large corporations which are probably even less likely to have the best interests of the majority in mind. So I think markets should be controlled where it makes sense but not to a ridiculous extend such as where obsolete industries are artificially kept running.

Abortion. I am conflicted here. The problem is that there is no obvious point where a cell becomes a foetus and a foetus becomes a baby. I think abortion in the very early stages of a pregnancy is OK but how to determine where the point is when a distinct, conscious individual is involved is difficult to determine.

Gun Control. I understand that the best way to avoid gun deaths is to eliminate guns and that is at least partly practical in some countries. But in others, such as the US, that chance has passed so guns must be accepted as a necessary evil. It should be necessary to prove a high degree of competency in using one before a license to own a firearm is issued though. I know that the “bad guys” will just get guns without a license, but at least the legal owners will have a higher level of skill and that might make the defensive advantage of guns greater.

Racism, Misogyny, Xenophobia, etc. I reject the idea of being biased against anyone because of factors such as race, gender, or country of origin. I also know that scientific tests show that everyone is biased in exactly these ways, often subconsciously! But at least knowing that, a person can try to overcome that bias. But, I also reject the over-use of these terms. For example, saying I don’t want a fundamentalist Muslim allowed into the country isn’t racist because Islam isn’t a race, it’s an idea. I reject bais against people, but not against ideas.

I hope that by looking at those opinions I could not be easily labelled with any of the traditional stereotyped political identities. I see some good points in all political positions and yes, I’m not afraid to admit that I agree with a few things controversial figures like Donald Trump have said.

And unlike most of my opponents I can justify my opinions with rational reasoning, not with simple-minded dogmatic hypocrisy which I so often see from people who obviously identify with one political movement. Instead of trying to fit in with that identity and to impress their friends with similar beliefs they should learn to think for themselves. They should wake up!

1K of RAM

July 25, 2017 Leave a comment

One of my first computers had just 1K of RAM. That’s enough to store… well, almost nothing. It could store 0.01% of a (JPEG compressed) digital photo I now take on my dSLR or 0.02% of a short (MP3 compressed) music track. In other words, I would need 10 thousand of these devices (in this case a Sinclair ZX80) to store one digital photo!

I know the comparison above is somewhat open to criticism in that I am comparing RAM with storage and that early computers could have their memory upgraded (to a huge 16K in the case of the ZX80) but the point remains the same: even the most basic computer today is massively superior to what we had in the “early days” of computers.

It should be noted that, despite these limitations, you could still do stuff with those early computers. For example, I wrote a fully functioning “Breakout” game in machine code on the ZX80 (admittedly with the memory expansion) and it was so fast I had to put a massive loop in the code to slow it down. That was despite the fact that the ZX80 had a single 8 bit processor running at 3.25 MHz which is somewhat inferior to my current laptop (now a few years out of date) which has four 64 bit cores (8 threads) running at 2.5 GHz.

The reason I am discussing this point here is that I read an article recently titled “The technology struggles every 90s child can relate to”. I wasn’t exactly a child in the 90s but I still struggled with this stuff!

So here’s the list of struggles in the article…

1. Modems

Today I “know everything” because in the middle of a discussion on any topic I can search the internet for any information I need and have it within a few seconds. There are four components to this which weren’t available in the 90s. First, I always have at least one device with me. It’s usually my iPhone but I often have an iPad or laptop too. Second, I am always connected to the internet no matter where I am (except for rare exceptions). Third, the internet is full of useful (and not useful) information on any topic you can image. And finally, Google makes finding that information easy (most of the time).

None of that was available in the 90s. To find a piece of information I would need to walk to the room where my desktop computer lived, boot it, launch a program (usually an early web browser), hope no one else was already using the phone line, wait for the connection to start, and laboriously look for what I needed (possibly using an early search engine) allowing for the distinct possibly that it didn’t exist.

In reality, although that information retrieval was possible both then and now, it was so impractical and slow in the 90s that it might as well have not existed at all.

2. Photography

I bought a camera attachment for one of my early cell phones and thought how great it was going to be taking photos anywhere without the need to take an SLR or compact (film) camera with me. So how may photos did I take with that camera? Almost none, because it was so slow, the quality was so bad, and because it was an attachment to an existing phone it tended to get detached and left behind.

Today my iPhone has a really good camera built-in. Sure it’s not as good as my dSLR but it is good enough, especially for wide-angle shots where there is plenty of light. And because my iPhone is so compact and easy to take everywhere (despite its astonishing list of capabilities) I really do have it with me always. Now I take photos every day and they are good enough to keep permanently.

3. Input devices

The original item here was mice, but I have extended it to mean all input devices. Mice haven’t changed much superficially but modern, wireless mice with no moving parts are certainly a lot better than their predecessors. More importantly, alternative input devices are also available now, most notably touch interfaces and voice input.

Before the iPhone no one really knew how to create a good UI on a phone but after that everything changed, and multi-touch interfaces are now ubiquitous and (in general, with a few unfortunate exceptions) are very intuitive and easy to use.

4. Ringtones

This was an item in the article but I don’t think things have changed that much now so I won’t bother discussing this one.

5. Downloads

Back in the day we used to wait hours (or days) for stuff to download from on-line services. Some of the less “official” services were extremely well used back then and that seems to have reduced a bit now, although downloading music and movies is still popular, and a lot faster now.

The big change here is maybe the change from downloads to streaming. And the other difference might be that now material can be acquired legally for a reasonable price rather than risking the dodgy and possibly virus infected downloads of the past.

6. Clunky Devices

In the 90s I would have needed many large, heavy, expensive devices just to do what my iPhone does now. I would need a gaming console, a music player with about 100 CDs to play in it, a hand-held movie player (if they even existed), a radio, a portable TV, an advanced calculator, a GPS unit, a compass, a barometer, an altimeter, a torch, a note pad, a book of maps, a small library of fiction and reference books, several newspapers, and a computer with functions such as email, messaging, etc.

Not only does one iPhone replace all of those functions, saving thousands of dollars and about a cubic meter of space, but it actually does things better than a lot of the dedicated devices. For example, I would rather use my iPhone as a GPS unit than a “real” GPS device.

7. Software

Software was a pain, but it is till often a pain today so maybe this isn’t such a big deal! At least it’s now easy to update software (it often happens with no user intervention at all) and installing over the internet is a lot easier than from 25 floppy disks!

Also, all software is installed in one place and doesn’t involve running from disk or CD. In fact, optical media (CDs and DVDs) are practically obsolete now which isn’t a bad thing because they never were particularly suitable for data storage.

8. Multi-User, Multi-Player

The article here talks about the problem of having multiple players on a PlayStation, but I think the whole issue of multiple player games (and multi-user software in general) is now taken for granted. I play against other people on my iPhone and iPad every day. There’s no real extra effort at all, and playing against other people is just so much more rewarding, especially when smashing a friend in a “friendly” race in a game like Real Racing 3!

So, obviously things have improved greatly. Some people might be tempted to get nostalgic and ask if things are really that much better today. My current laptop has 16 million times as much memory, hundreds of thousands times as much CPU power, and 3000 times as many pixels as my ZX80 but does it really do that much more? Hell, yes!

More of the Same

July 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Here in New Zealand we will be having a general election this year. The current government is lead by the center-right National Party and the main opposition party is the center-left Labour Party. There are a few other significant parties too, which will probably make an important contribution to the final mix in government.

National have been in charge for almost 9 years and have been quite moderate, and fairly solid, but uninspiring. Traditionally, after three terms a government would probably be thrown out, no matter how well they had performed, but this time National have maintained a fairly healthy lead in the polls. Or more correctly, the Labour and Green parties have failed to make any progress.

Why?

Well, it’s fairly simple really – and everyone except the strategists in Labour and the Greens seem to be able to see it. In the past occupying the center has been the path to victory. It is true that the center has lurched a long was into the libertarian-style right in the past 30 years, and that has only returned to a more traditional position recently, but the principle still stands.

But now things are changing. People want something different. They feel betrayed (and rightly so) by all forms of government. Both the right and the left have implemented policies which have badly damaged the middle and lower classes and now both sides of the political spectrum are almost indistinguishable from each other.

So advertising your party as a bastion of solidity and virtually promising more of the same is exactly the wrong thing to do. It’s particularly sad to see Labour abandoning any new ideas (because in the past all the new ideas have come from them) and for the Greens to toe the line and promise responsible financial management.

We don’t want more of that! Responsible financial management has created a super-rich upper class, an increasingly poverty-sticken lower class, and a whole new class of working poor (because wages and conditions are so bad after so much “financial responsibility”).

After the results seen in the US, UK, and France it should be obvious that, whatever the polls say (because almost all of them have failed miserably), people want something different. And if no reasonable party is prepared to offer that then we will get more unorthodox politicians gaining power. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Because when I walk down the street now I see a lot more people in obvious financial difficulty while at the same time seeing a lot of Aston Martins, Porsches, and other expensive cars than I have ever seen in the past. It’s pretty clear that this financial responsibility they speak of does great things for some members of society, at least!

And don’t ever have the temerity to tell me that those people worked hard for their fancy cars. While there might be a few who work more than most it’s very clear that work and income are no longer linked in any way. People who live in their cars often have multiple jobs while the super-rich can do nothing and still make millions.

Society has never been fair but it’s obviously a lot less fair now than it has been in the past. The greedy might have pushed things just a bit too far now and voters are looking for a way to make a change. It’s a great opportunity for the parties of the left to make a genuine difference but instead of offering something new they are just following the same old path they have been forced into by the necessities of the politics of the last 30 years which were dominated by neoliberalism.

But that ideology’s time is over. It’s time to move on. We don’t want more of the same.

Ignorant, and Proud of It

July 7, 2017 Leave a comment

I understand how people want to give other people – especially those from groups which might be seen as being disadvantaged – a bit of extra help and support. These people usually mean well and just want everyone to have a fair deal. And they often see anyone who doesn’t share that view as being ignorant, bigoted, or self-serving, and sometimes they are right.

But equally they should be open to alternative ideas and should have the humility to listen to opposing views, and perhaps modify their own ideas slightly as a result. After all, especially in the realm of social issues and politics, it is very easy to get stuck in a mindset which is never challenged by your usual friends. Contrary views should be welcomed and fairly considered instead of being dismissed with no thought.

But that’s not usually how things work, as illustrated by a “conversation” I had recently where my points – which were contrary to the other participants in the discussion – were just ignored without any appraisal at all.

The discussion was over a flyer produced by a New Zealand group, the Hobson’s Pledge Trust, which encouraged making political decisions (including voting for parties supporting their ideas) leading to equal rights for all groups, no matter what their ethnicity or origin.

I ended up debating the person (let’s call her “L”) who posted on Facebook regarding her distaste for the flyer. Here are the first few comments in that debate…

L: As Tama Waititi (NZ actor/director) says every bit of racism helps and this political offering delivered in our letter box today by Hobson pledge has a huge amount of it. Feel free to contact them!

Me: Is there anything untrue in that material?

L: Ahh Owen I will answer. Yes everything because it is written from an ignorant and racist perspective perpetuating hate and ignorance.

Me: I think it’s dangerous closing down a particular political view, whatever we think of it, by just applying a label like “racist”.

L: Nope very happy to :*)

Me: You should have a think about that.

L: Owen Baxter I have and very comfy thanks. :)

Me: OK. That’s your view. Just accept that other people have different views which can be justified at least as well as yours.

Before I comment I do need to say that I am no great supporter of the people behind Hobson’s Pledge. However, like all groups, I think they make some good points, and even if they didn’t, the correct response is to show that they are wrong, not to just refuse to even engage in discussing a view which has a fairly high level of support.

If you look at the discussion above you will notice how there is no attempt at all to answer my initial question on whether there is anything untrue in the material. More importantly, notice how L admits to wanting to close down the debate by simply applying a label with no justification.

This is simple ignorance, and ignorance is bad in itself, of course, but L seems to be proud of it! And to show now she is not alone, here are a few other comments which I collected from various sources on this topic…

One person said “I’m burning it without reading it”. Well, that’s very mature and fair, isn’t it. What are they scared of? Maybe, that it might make sense and cause them to change their mind. We couldn’t have that, could we? It’s better just to stay ignorant.

Another commented “We cannot allow it to happen because of the violent reaction to the abolition of affirmative action.” So this sounds like, if affirmative action (which is just another way of saying some groups, based on race, are given special privileges) is removed there will be a violent response. This isn’t an opinion based on right and wrong, just a threat of violence if a particular political view isn’t followed.

Here’s another, somewhat more reasonable, comment: “voters have moved on from the ‘negative sentiment’ of Hobson’s Pledge.” There might be some truth in this, but that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worth taking into consideration. I also suspect there is a lot more support for it by the “silent majority” who are too scared to enter into any discussion on the topic.

And, “people, including politicians, are appalled by this racist leaflet.” OK, but don’t just be appalled, tell us why you are appalled – is it wrong? Is it immoral in some way? And please, try to avoid applying that label “racist”. It really has got to the point where all it really means is “someone who disagrees with me on a matter involving race politics”.

Finally, it was said that the Human Rights Commission has received complaints. But, of course, none of those complaints were upheld which seems to indicate that the flyer was not racist according to them.

I have made several posts in the last year describing how I am moving away from being identified with traditional left views. This is part of the reason why. It seems that the left are just as bad as the right on most issues now. They are just as self-righteous, just as inflexible, just as ignorant, and just as wrong.

Don’t Fool Yourself

July 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently started listening to Sam Harris’ podcast, “Waking Up”. It’s an interesting mixture of stuff which varies from the somewhat odd (his ideas on the use of drugs and meditation) to extremely perceptive and compelling.

Harris is a well known “militant atheist” and critic of religion, especially Islam, so his ideas fit in well with a lot of mine. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he says, or accept every point, just because it reinforces my own ideas of course, but it does mean his style of thinking and debating matches mine.

The topic of a recent podcast – featuring evolutionary scientist and writer Jerry Coyne – which I want to comment on here is whether science and religion are compatible.

Many people would say they are, first because (they claim) that science and religion have different purposes and are used to achieve different goals, second because many scientists are also religious, and third because the two use different methodologies to achieve similar ends. These all seem fairly reasonable at first, but are they really?

Well no, they’re not. I don’t think science and religion are compatible at all, and I’ll explain why.

What about the claim that the two seek to examine completely different areas of knowledge? Traditionally the view, which goes back to 1920s, is that science is concerned with the general conditions regulating the physical universe, and religion examines moral and aesthetic values. This is wrong on two counts.

First, almost every religion makes truth claims about the physical universe. They tend to have creation myths, for example, which undoubtedly conflict with science. Not every believer takes these stories seriously, but a lot of them do, and until the stories were shown to be wrong everyone believed them. They are definitely an important part of religion. So that’s one obvious source of conflict.

The usual justification for this is that those stories aren’t “real religion”. For some reason Stephen Jay Gould held this view, for example, but surely this is a case of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, and even most theologians reject it.

Additionally the second part of the claim is untrue. I don’t believe that the purpose of religion is to examine moral and aesthetic values. That is philosophy’s role, surely. So religion really has no purpose because it tries to usurp science’s role in truth-based areas and philosophy’s in others!

Moving on to the fact that many scientists are religious. Francis Collins is often given an example, who is a well respected geneticist but also an evangelical Christian. Surely if he exists in both the scientific and religious worlds like that they must be compatible?

Not necessarily. Many people compartmentalise their lives and live almost as if they have two personalities. I have heard Collins try to justify his religious beliefs in rational terms and to be perfectly honest it was pathetic. Clearly that aspect of his life is completely separate from his science. I’m fairly sure, for example, that he has never written a paper justifying a scientific discovery because Jesus told him something in a dream or that it says so in the Bible.

Equally I’m fairly sure he has doesn’t use scientific logic and rationality in the religious component of his life (as I said above, the interviews with him on that topic make that abundantly clear).

Coyne compare it with the Catholic church. It’s like saying that Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible because some members of the church practice both. If they want to use that logic to associate religion with positive things like science, then they have to use it to associate it with bad stuff too. Oddly enough, it usually doesn’t seem to work that way!

There’s one other point here too. That is that religious belief becomes less as people become more senior in science. Also, according to surveys I have seen recently, even though a large fraction of scientists identify as Christians, only a small number think a personal god exists. You really have to wonder whether most of them are “real Christians” or just use the label through habit or to avoid the difficulties that non-religious people face in some countries.

Finally I will tackle the idea of different methodologies. Broadly science uses observation and experiment and religion uses faith and revelation. It’s no secret that I think that the very idea of religion’s epistemology is completely absurd and I can’t see how any intelligent person could give it even a moment of serious consideration. But the point is, that even if you can take it seriously, it is completely contrary to what science uses so surely this counts as a point of conflict.

On that subject I need to mention Richard Feynman, who is possibly my favourite scientist of all time, and who said this about science: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Clearly that doesn’t apply to most areas outside of science.

So it seems totally indisputable to me: religion and science aren’t just incompatible, they are practically opposites. Anyone who disagrees is apparently not following Feynman’s advice!