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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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Blog Posts and Podcasts

October 26, 2017 Leave a comment

It has been a while since I created a new blog post, but if you are feeling neglected, never fear! I have not given up writing them, and still have many ideas I want to discuss. I’m sure the world is relieved to hear this news!

The reason I haven’t posted anything for 10 days is that I have been concentrating on podcasts.

Just in case you haven’t caught up, a podcast is an audio recording (usually a spoken discussion or reading) which can be downloaded from the internet and listened to at any time, usually on a smart phone, but also possibly on a computer, tablet, or similar device. There will be a feed which allows you to “subscribe” and be notified of new podcasts, which are usually created regularly as a series. Alternatively individual programs can be accessed through a normal web page.

My podcasts are at http://ojb.nz/owen/XuPodcasts/Podcasts.html
and the RSS feed is http://ojb.nz/owen/XuRSS/RSS2.xml

At one point in the past I was creating these fairly regularly, but have gone through a period where I neglected them a bit. Recently I got back into the fine art of podcasting, which is quite involved. My podcasts are usually between 5 and 10 minutes in length but most require about an hour to create.

First I need to record the program. I find a quiet space and read the material into my computer. Including errors, phone calls and other interruptions, re-reads, etc this usually ends up being twice as long as it should be!

Then I edit the audio file I recorded using an audio program. I currently use the quite powerful, free program, Audacity. I remove the errors and repeats, fix the spacing by adding and removing gaps, improve the overall tempo, standardise the volume level, and improve the pitch dependent on the room I did the reading in. On a few podcasts I also add music or sound effects. Finally, I export the file as an MP3.

The last step is to write the XML and HTML (don’t worry if you don’t know what these are) so that the files can be accessed through a news aggregator program (I use NetNewsWire), a podcasting app (I use Downcast on my iPhone), or a web browser (such as Safari or Chrome). And I put all of those components on my web server (ojb.nz), of course.

So what is in these podcasts? Well mostly they are just audio versions of my favourite blog posts and web pages. There’s nothing new in them and the podcast just provides an alternative way to get my valuable thoughts!

So if you are already bored with reading this stuff then now there is a new way for you to get bored. Now you can also achieve this by listening!

If you want some recommendations from the (currently) 74 podcasts on my site, try these…

2012-04-27 – Its Five Day Mission
2014-04-25 – The Libertarian Dream
2017-05-23 – A Ticket to Heaven
2014-02-19 – All My Macs
2016-03-16 – Sadness and Beauty
2017-10-16 – Child or Picasso?
2015-09-21 – Insulting Sir Pita

Remember, these are all available at http://ojb.nz/owen/XuPodcasts/Podcasts.html

There’s a combination of stuff there which I hope most people would find interesting. If you do listen and have any thoughts, let me know in the comments for this blog post.

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.

Facts, Logic, Morality

September 18, 2017 2 comments

I recently spent some time with a colleague discussing how to deal with a fundamentalist Christian’s irrational ideas that he had recently become aware of. I have to say that this fundy keeps his crazy ideas pretty much to himself and is otherwise a perfectly pleasant and reasonable person, so there was no real need to try to “convert” him, but sometimes the need to try arises – such as in a debate situation – so I thought I might describe my technique here.

I have had varying degrees of success with this in the past, from complete rejection (because some people are never going to change their views) to moderate success (for example, a person admitting to changing his opinions, or one who was on the road to enlightenment: that is, believing the same thing as me, and I am fully aware of how arrogant that sounds).

But where I have had some successes it has never been using just one technique. In addition, it is never easy to tell which method of persuasion is likely to be effective for a particular individual, so I have created a three step process which formalises by debating technique…

Step 1. Use facts.

My first instinct when debating controversial issues is to use facts. In general the issues I support can be easily supported with good evidence. But most people who believe in irrational ideas didn’t get to that point by following the facts, because there never are many supporting them. So it often follows that they can’t be moved by using facts either.

In addition there are always facts on both sides. Sometimes the “facts” on one side are barely facts at all (hence the quotes) but many people will believe an extremely doubtful or weak fact if it supports what they want to believe, even if there are a hundred which are much more certain against them.

Step 2. Use logic.

When step 1 fails it is often useful to try a process of logic. A complex idea can be broken down into a series of steps which logically follow and are difficult to deny. There doesn’t necessarily have to be any facts involved in this because logic usually transcends facts.

Step 3. Use morality.

If both facts and logic fail a good backup strategy, depending on the actual subject under discussion, is to use a moral or ethical argument. While morals vary from one person to another to some extent, there are common concepts shared by most people, including fairness, non-violence, and freedom.

So now I should give an example. Obviously I’m not going into details because half my readers won’t have even got this far and are unlikely to want to read 20 pages on the subject, but I will use a very condensed version of how I would handle the issue. So here’s an imaginary debate between me and a fundamentalist Christian…

Fundy: The Bible says that God created humans, so evolution cannot be true, and following events described there it makes it obvious the world is only 6000 years old. The Bible also says that it is the inerrant word of God and that the devil is always trying to find ways to deceive us with false truths. Without the Bible to guide us we will have no moral compass and there will be increased violence and evil around the world.

Me: You say that evolution cannot be true yet almost every expert in the world has concluded it is. Also there are many lines of evidence which anyone can understand which show evolution is an accurate theory to describe the variety of life on Earth. The age of the world cannot possibly be that short and I can show you evidence from geology, biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and many other areas of science to show it is almost 14 billion years. The time light has spent travelling from distance galaxies shows this, for example. Let’s get these fact-based claims out of the way before we move on to the other stuff.

Fundy: But the Bible has been shown to be accurate, so how can it be wrong? Also there are many scientists who don’t believe in evolution or an old Earth. Here is a list of URLs for you to look at. Not following the Bible leads to you rejecting God’s offer of salvation and you just don’t want to admit his authority.

Me: The Bible is full of errors if you are prepared to accept scientific and historical evidence. For example, there is no evidence at all of major stories like Genesis, the Flood, Exodus, etc. These so-called scientists you cite are not publishing in scientific journals so I would say they are not practicing scientists. In fact most of them work at Answers in Genesis. If they are only looking in one place they will never be able to look at all the evidence. Let’s keep to facts and forget about God’s salvation for now.

Fundy: You have your facts and I have mine. Many serious researchers are religious and you cannot reject their research so easily. Also science changes all the time. Who can tell when a new theory might come along and contradict the Big Bang or evolution? You say yourself that science can never prove anything with 100% certainty, so why are you so sure that science is right and religion is wrong?

Me: Instead of just offering an opinion on who is doing science and who isn’t, we should look at a standard which is widely accepted. People who are engaged in science publish in reputable journals. Anyone who isn’t doing that isn’t really doing science. They might still be right, but based on past experience the scientific consensus is far more reliable than anything else. And you are right, we can never be 100% certain of anything, but it is still reasonable to accept a theory which is 99% likely to be at least a good approximation to the truth (like evolution), instead of one we can be 99% certain is wrong (like creation).

Fundy: You may say that but because you have no moral basis for your views they are really arbitrary. Without God to guide you and tell right from wrong, how can your views be taken seriously?

Me: Well this gets back to an old question in philosophy regarding the goodness of god. But first, let me say that using a god who probably doesn’t even exist as the basis of your morality seems worse than admitting that we really don’t even have a basis. And even if we pretend that your god does exist, how do we know he is good? Is it because he says so? And if your god is good, is he good because he’s god, or is he god because he’s good? In other words if we know he’s good then there must be some external criterion to judge that against, in which case why do we need a god anyway? And if whatever he does is good because he’s god then that seems a dangerous view to take because any dictator could make that claim.

Fundy: Wait, what? We know God is good because that’s one of the reasons we know he’s the one true God. Can you not see the logic in this?

Me: All I can see is a circular argument: God is good because he’s God. How do we know he’s God? Because he’s good. How do we know he’s good? Because he’s God.

Fundy: You know, that is a ridiculous simplification of a position that theologians have been debating for centuries. Do you really believe you have the answer to such a deep and meaningful problem?

Me: Well, yes. I think it really is that simple. The only reason it becomes complex is because many people want to reach a conclusion that supports the existence of a god. If they just followed the evidence they would see that it’s really quite simple: that there is no good reason to believe a god exists.

Fundy: The Bible talks about people like you who use false logic to try to lead believers away from the truth. You do realise that you are risking eternal damnation for your excessive pride and inability to accept the authority of God, don’t you?

Me: I know that according to the narrative of the New Testament your god prefers to inflict people who refuse to accept his dominance with eternal torture. This is the same god who is advertised as being the “God of love” and who has a prophet (Jesus) who preaches understanding and acceptance. This seems somewhat contradictory to me.

Fundy: God gives you the choice of believing in him or not. If you don’t accept his offer you deserve all you get. He sacrificed his son so that you could have this hope of salvation, yet you refuse to take it.

Me: It’s not a choice I make. I simply cannot believe your god exists. Should I pretend to believe when I really don’t? Would God not know that I’m not being honest with him? And if your god wants me to believe in him why doesn’t he make his presence more obvious? Why do I have to rely on faith which I cannot force myself to do that?

Fundy: His presence is obvious to most of us. Why do you think that most people in the world are Christians?

Me: Actually, they’re not. Only a third of the population identify as Christians and even then that is purely a matter of their societal norms. You are a Christian because that is the history of the country you were born in. If you were born in India you would almost certainly be a Hindu. If you were born in Iraq you would be a Muslim. It seems that the god you follow depends on your culture, not on which (if any) god really exists.

Fundy: Well you seem to have convinced yourself that these false beliefs are true. I have tried to show you the truth but your pride prevents you from accepting it. Don’t complain when you end up in Hell.

Me: Am I a bad person? Have I been guilty of any terrible crimes? I donate to charities, I am a productive member of my society, I don’t harm any other people. Why do I deserve eternal damnation from this “loving God” of yours?

Fundy: God is just, and he is only doing what you deserve. It is not for me or you to judge whether he is right or wrong – he is God and can do whatever he likes.

Me: So a person who spends his whole life torturing, killing, etc and then accepts Jesus as his saviour shortly before dying goes to heaven, but a person who spends his life doing good, but cannot accept the teaching of your religion because there is no evidence, suffers forever. If that is how your god works then, even if he did exist, I would not accept him.

Fundy: And there’s the proof that you are evil.

Me: OK, let’s leave it there. Thanks for the discussion.

As you can see, in the fictitious example above (but one based on real experience) the fundy isn’t converted on the spot, but I would hope that amongst the points I made: that the evidence is against him, that logic is against him, and that an understanding of basic fairness and morality is against him; there might be something to make him a little bit less certain than he was.

Or, maybe, he might exhibit the backfire effect and just “double-down” on his beliefs because they are shown to be probably untrue. But the three pronged attack makes that less likely because I have found that the final argument (the unfairness of God’s punishment) often gets through to people when the more rational points don’t.

Whatever the end effect is, debating this way is fun, and any progress – no matter how small – is OK with me.

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.

Shades of Grey

September 6, 2017 Leave a comment

When I decided to title this blog post “Shades of Grey” I first Googled the phrase to make sure I had the meaning correct. Of course, about 99% of the hits were about the movie “50 Shades of Grey” which I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised about given the power of pop culture. But, of course, I’m using it in the traditional way: to mean that many things cannot be simply seen as good or bad, or black or white, because there are always shades of grey.

So after the disappointment of discovering that I am not discussing the movie the natural question the reader might ask is: exactly what am I on about this time?

Just that too many people like to categorise every person, every organisation, every belief system as either good or bad, when they really should be assigning a shade of grey instead. So instead of calling a political movement (for example) evil, they should say something like mostly bad but with a few good characteristics too. I really believe there is nothing in this world that is wholly evil or entirely good.

But there is a corollary to this idea which is perhaps even more important. That is that two things which might seem to occupy the “darker” end of the spectrum cannot be classified as equally bad. To use the colour metaphor: they’re not both black, one might be really dark grey and the other mid-grey.

At this point I should be more specific. The one I want to use, because I have been guilty of falling into this trap myself, is to equate two sides in a conflict as being equally bad because they both have done bad things.

For example, I have heard some people say that the US was as bad as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, because of the many deaths from US air strikes in the Iraq War. Or similarly, that the US is as bad as the Taliban because they both have been guilty of causing the death of civilians in Afghanistan. Or to take it even further, that the Allies were as bad as the Nazis in World War II because of some of the more controversial actions like the bombing of Dresden.

Many people might look at these examples and scoff, saying that they see no equivalence there. That is good, but I would make two points. First, many people (especially those on the politically correct left) do see an equivalence; and second, these particular examples might not have suited your concept of morally equivalent actions but almost everyone will have something which does.

Just to make the shades of grey concept totally clear, I am not saying that the Allies were totally blameless in World War II. Many people have said that various actions (the bombing of Dresden being the most well known) might have been classified as war crimes. But while those actions were certainly far from sparkling white, they were far ahead of some Nazi’s conduct, such as the Holocaust, which were surely amongst the blackest of modern times.

An interesting contributing factor to this debate is the motivation for action. When the US is involved in a conflict it isn’t there to force people to adopt a religion, or to take over territory, or to even acquire resources. I will concede that there is an element of economic benefit in some cases, and in others getting involved in a conflict would be uncharitably seen as a political distraction, but these are lesser evils than the motivation of ISIS or most other opposing groups.

So saying that the US is as bad as ISIS because sometimes US drone strikes kill innocent civilians just like ISIS suicide bombers do, is missing the point. If the US could perform strikes against military targets with no collateral damage I think most people would say they would do that. But ISIS makes a deliberate effort to kill civilians as part of its military strategy.

Sure, either way innocent people are dead, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the two actions are equivalent. Killing innocent people accidentally from a drone strike is bad, but killing them deliberately using suicide bombers is worse according to any reasonable moral code.

If you have got this far and are still saying “well, duh” because everything I have said so far is obvious then that’s good, but I can tell you I meet a lot of people who would not accept any of the above.

Here’s a few more examples of people, or groups, or actions which tend to be seen by some groups as obviously black and white (good and bad) or as equally bad when there is one which is genuinely worse than the other…

The Israeli security forces versus groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian conflict. In this case the Israelis are far from innocent but at least there tactics are more moral than those used by the opposing forces.

Donald Trump versus Barack Obama. I cannot justify Trump’s aversion to dealing with facts, but I also find the constant demonisation of him to be tiresome. I’m sure there are some things he has done that the PC left would approve of. Maybe closing down the TPP would be a good example.

Poor people who commit welfare benefit fraud versus rich individuals and corporations who engage in tax evasion and avoidance. I don’t give either side a free pass although I think it is more morally justifiable to commit fraud to feed your family than it is to avoid paying a fair amount of tax just so that rich shareholders and directors can get even richer.

It’s just too easy to assign a good or bad, pass or fail, black or white to everything, usually based on existing political preferences, or in-group habits, rather than a genuine analysis of what is really happening. I think from now on people should assign a score instead. This will encourage a more nuanced view of the situation being evaluated.

So Allies versus Nazis: 90:10, George Bush versus Saddam Hussein 60:40. the US versus ISIS 80:20, etc. Those numbers are just first guesses and I could be persuaded to change them by a good argument. But the point is that it’s a lot easier to adjust some numbers than to change from a good versus bad situation.

So yes, it’s all about shades of grey, and there are at least 50 of them.