Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

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!

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!

Play the Ball

April 11, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Reality?

March 21, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Opium of the People

January 13, 2017 Leave a comment

In this blog I have often portrayed the advantages I see in being an atheist compared with following a religion. But like all worldviews, atheism has some disadvantages as well. Religious people have three advantages over atheists, as I see it: they have a church which provides a benefit to their social life, they tend to donate more to charity, and they are happier.

All of these factors are documented in fairly credible studies so I don’t think they can easily be explained away. But, of course, I am going to try!

First, the social aspects of religion. There is no doubt that attending church helps bond people and gives them a group they feel they can belong to, get support from, and generally identify with.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping non-religious people from forming groups based on their shared values or interests, such as skeptics in the pub, atheist outreach, or groups based on any other activities (amateur astronomy, computer users, stamp collecting), but there is no doubt that church groups just seem to have an extra element the others lack.

There are negative aspects to this too, because being part of an in-group means that others are the out-group. So strongly bonded church groups do create a sort of “us and them” mentality. I have heard many members of one particular Christian sect ridiculing other Christians just because they belong to a slightly different group with almost indistinguishable beliefs. And their opinion of other religions and the non-religious can be even more extreme.

Another problem with these groups is that it discourages receptiveness to new ideas. If a person socialises with others who believe the same thing – however ridiculous those beliefs might be – they are unlikely to expand their horizons to encompass anything new. So a church group is like a trap which is hard to escape from.

What about charity? There are stats which indicate religious people do donate more than others. Unfortunately the stats don’t distinguish between donations which go to genuine charities and those which just go towards the church they belong to. Looking at the money involved in running some churches and the lavish lifestyles of some of the church leaders I would say that a lot of that charitable giving is wasted.

So now the big one: happiness. Research indicates that religious people are often happier. This observation is complicated by the fact that the most happy societies are those which exist in the least religious countries (Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, etc). What’s going on here? Well it seems thet religion gives some individuals greater happiness but it reduces the happiness of society as a whole.

Why are religious people happy? Research indicates it is almost entirely due to the social cohesion they get from belonging to a group, but surely some of it must also relate to blissful ignorance!

So religious happiness might be a bit like the state of euphoria some people get from taking drugs. It’s not real, but it’s good while it lasts. And also like using drugs or alcohol, some people become happy and good natured and others turn bad.

As Karl Marx said: “religion is the opium of the people”. He realised the good and bad aspects of religion. Here is the full paragraph containing that quote: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” And following that: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

So the analogy of religion as a drug leads to the idea that by being a “user” of religion the person avoids confronting real problems of the world and possibly improving the world to the point where real happiness is possible. Certainly denial seems a common attitude amongst religious people. And that is where the problem really arises.

But real happiness seems very difficult to achieve, so maybe the fake version provided by the opium of religion is the best alternative we can hope for. But that’s a rather unhappy thought!

What I Believe

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Answers

October 19, 2016 7 comments

It’s unusual for me to be uncertain about stuff. I mean, I am always prepared to change my opinion on anything, if I’m shown new information, but until that happens I usually have a fairly well established position on most things. Here are some examples: most climate change is caused by humans, almost certainly true; fluoride in water is overall beneficial, yes very likely; humans have been to the Moon, no reason to doubt it; the official story of the 9/11 attack is accurate, probably fairly close to being true; evolution is a fact, there is no alternative; etc.

But there are a few things I’m not so certain about. I don’t even have a consistent interim position on these. Some times I will be pro and others anti. And these are some of the most interesting questions in modern society. Let’s have a look at a few of these issues…

Is abortion morally OK?

I know the arguments that abortion is about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, but it isn’t that simple, is it? There is another body involved, even though that is currently sustained by the woman. When does a fertilised egg become a foetus and when does that become an unborn child, and when does that become a unique conscious entity? There are no objective answers and any answers we might have are largely arbitrary.

It seems that in the early stages before any sort of nervous system has developed it would be hard to call the foetus a unique entity, but when does that change? It’s a difficult one and the current limits are arbitrary and could be debated either way.

I know a lot of people hold strong positions on this issue on both sides: some are anti-abortion for irrational religious reasons and some are pro- for equally irrational feminist reasons. I’m just honest enough to say I don’t know.

Does conventional economics produce good outcomes?

Clearly the answer to this question depends on the exact definition of “conventional economics” and “good” but I think most people have a fair idea of what I am talking about. I often argue for a more socialist approach to running our economies, but socialism has been conspicuously unsuccessful in its more pure forms. Of course, I would say those examples (such as the USSR) aren’t the sort of socialist principles I’m talking about, but it does weaken the argument.

On the other hand, free markets, globalisation, and unregulated labour markets seem to clearly produce poor outcomes for the majority. But many people would say that the perceived deficiencies are still less pernicious than those of other economic systems.

I have heard good arguments for greater economic freedom and equally good ones for greater state control. The problem is I trust neither government nor big business! So again, I don’t know where the best balance lies, although I tend to think we need a bit of a correction to the left from the way things are now.

Was Jesus a real person?

If Jesus actually existed and the stories about him are even mostly true then that makes a big difference to my perception of the world. I see practically no reason to believe any of the supernatural aspects of the Jesus story because they are inconsistent and totally unsupported by other sources outside of the Bible, but the question on whether he existed at all is more interesting.

A lot of the time I see the evidence for his existence as being so poor that it just isn’t worth taking seriously. But then I see that most scholars – including many who aren’t specifically Christian – do strongly support the idea he existed, even though they usually reject the religious enhancements to his story, like the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection.

I’m currently in a phase where I say he didn’t exist in any form which would be remotely similar to the Biblical account, but who knows, tomorrow I might read another opinion and tend more to the idea that someone who was a great teacher and proponent of peace and good moral standards did exist and that the Bible stories are based on this.

Is the common interpretation of quantum mechanics real?

The deeper science probes into the inner workings of the universe the more bizarre and incomprehensible reality seems to become. Relativity, with its warped space and time, speeding up and slowing down of time, and other bizarre effects seems odd enough, but that is nothing compared with quantum theory.

Is wave particle duality a real thing? It seems to me that fundamental particles are probably not either waves or particles depending on the experiment we perform on them. More likely they are neither but can be interpreted as either as a sort of shorthand to their true form.

And what about the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics? Does the observer cause the wave function to collapse and define reality? I don’t think anyone really understands the question and certainly no one has a good answer. Like Richard Feynman said: if you think you understand quantum mechanics you obviously don’t know anything about it! (slightly paraphrased)

Do we have free will?

I have heard good arguments both ways on this one too. Usually ideas on this diverge for two reasons: either the person has a religious, philosophical, political, or other irrational worldview which requires free will to be real or an illusion; or the person has an unusual interpretation of what “free will” really is.

I generally say that, according to my defintion, we don’t have free will, but I would have no choice but to believe in free will if good enough evidence arose. There, read that last sentence again and tell me I have free will!

There’s no reason to think that all questions have an answer and maybe I have just chosen what I sometimes call “un-questions”. All I know is that even if no answers exist it’s kind of fun to try to find them.