Thursday, July 23, 2009

Philosophical differences underlying the secular in-fighting

The most recent flare-up in a long running personal battle between PZ and the co-authors of Unscientific America is just one instance of many between concerned secularists.

These arguments between the 'appeasers' and the 'fundamentalists' have intensified since the release of the New Atheist books. But they do have a far deeper and broader origin than one of just messaging and presentation.

Yes messaging is important. If the aim is to promote secularism and atheism then the most effective means should be identified and pursued. For me, it was the science that pushed me in the right direction. In particular it was reading A Brief History of Time and other popular physics.

Pushing Atheism and ridiculing religion would have had a counter-productive effort. I would have gotten defensive. I would have retreated back into my faith and wrapped it around me even more tightly.

Suggestions of positive and hopeful alternatives are almost always a better motivator for change than attacking the current status quo.

But having become certain of Atheism, I was still reluctant to come out and say it. I was a closeted Atheist for a long time after. I would call myself an agnostic without really knowing what that meant. I would play nice.

So maybe 'rounding up the base' is more fruitful than converting new people from scratch. Maybe the majority of efforts should be to get the closeted atheists to come out in force. If that is the aim, then PZ, Dawkins and Hitchens are on the right track. It was Dawkins' books that made me drop the agnostic label and come out as an Atheist.

For some of us it is the scientific method that is the ultimate goal. We want people to respect science over anything else. Dawkins would say the main obstacle to science is religion. So we need to attack religion first, then proceed to replace it with science.

Eugene Scott would say science education is the best way to get people to stop believing in superstition.

And I would agree. It worked for me.

If the end goal is science, are we reducing its credibility by conflating it with Atheism? But on the other hand, can we lie and say science and religion can be at peace, when we truly believe they are not? PZ would say a scientist should not lie. Lies damage credibility more than anything else. Lies are the tools of the religious, and us rationalists should not sink to their level.

Thus the 'appeasers' are not appeasers and the 'fundamentalists' are not fundamentalists. They both have their persuasive moral reasons for their respective strategies.

In addition to the messaging problem, we also have the disagreement over 'how bad is religion anyway?' I have a feeling that if we summed up quantitatively all the ill-effects of religion and subtracted all the positive effects of religion then it might turn out to be a wash. I am sometimes one of those that Daniel Dennett disparagingly calls 'believers in belief."

Until there is quantifiable evidence that swings one way or the other, I'm not going to get all flustered up about that argument. In the end, we have to be scientific about this. It is after all the way of knowing the truth.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Michael Collins from the Moon.

There are some brilliant essays and accounts all over the web commemorating the moon landing. But none of them got to me more than Michael Collins' own words as quoted in an Atlantic article on heroes.

"I really believe," he said, "that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogenous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied."

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Obligations to the future

One of the main considerations in ethics is the 'Veil of Ignorance', a concept put forward by John Rawls in Toward a Theory of Justice:
no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

Racism and sexism are bad for many reasons, one of them being that they violate this social contract. Reasoning from the Original Position also leads me to support public education, and public health care, especially for children and those with genetic disorders.

It is obvious to see why people should not be discriminated on the basis of where they are born. But how about when they are born?

We are polluting the world today, and incurring debt, all at the expense of people who are born 10, 20, 30 or a hundred years from now. They do not have the choice as to when they would be born. They are people just like us, albeit located in a different time.

So when we dismiss their concerns and well being, when we harm their interests to gain immediate benefits for ourselves, are we making a moral mistake somewhat akin to racism?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

US response to Iran

A bullet has been collectively dodged here. Just think of the damage a Bush administration would have done with their predictable reaction to this situation. It makes you feel a little queasy even now.

I actually suspect that President John McCain wouldn't have done what Senator John McCain is now advocating. There aren't too many people left in positions that matter who would be so ignorant of Iranian domestic politics as to advocate America lending its official weight behind the protesters.

All through their lives Iranians have been subject to anti-American propaganda. They are told that the United States is run by 'rich Jews' who want to destroy Islam and the Iranian republic. And they have a whole list of reasons to believe so. Everyone remembers the disastrous policies and interferences by the United States. Even the moderates, the relatively pro-American ones, remember Mossadeigh, the Shah, the war against Iraq and the axis of evil.

When Khāmene’i claimed that the British and the US were pulling the strings, it is like saying Obama was backed by socialists and Islamists. Except the former claim would be accepted by a far greater percentage of the Iranian population than the latter would be by Americans. They have real cause for such beliefs.

There are many Chinese who are certain that the Tienanmen Square rallies were engineered by the CIA. Historical grievances are not forgotten as easily as we would hope, and they provide an unfortunate context to the assessment that an average Chinese or Iranian will make on the cause of various events.

The current US policy towards Iran is almost pitch perfect. Can you imagine the protests even occurring if Bush was still in power? Or McCain with his 'bomb bomb bomb Iran'? The moderates in Iran would have been sidelined into nothing. Achmadi would have won his second term with ease. Hardliners of one camp foster the hardliners in the other.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Movie Review: Revenge of the Sith

Episode III posed an unenviable challenge for Lucas and Co. They had to depict some of the most significant moments of a well-loved cinematic mythology. The film had to deliver a long anticipated emotional payout. It had to convincingly depict the transformation of Anakin Skywalker, the end of the Republic, the fallout between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the exile of Yoda and the almost-complete extermination of the Jedi.

The filmmakers were in very easy danger of overshooting the mark. They could have ended up with an overly sentimental and clichéd (recall RotK) transition. On the other hand the filmmakers also had to be careful not to rush through the most important moments. They had to take the time to provide the set-up and structure that is necessary for the credibility of these transformations.

There is no doubt that Lucas delivers a film that is visually spectacular and wonderfully choreographed. The pacing of the action is quick and the screen is always packed with detail and movement. Lucas gets a lot of things right in this department.

However he also gets a lot of things wrong and these mistakes come at the most critical points of the story. The expectations from the film required subtle writing and skilfully consistent acting performances. Instead these legs crumble under the weight of the burden. The uneven acting of all the major characters and much of the clichéd dialogue mar what are sometimes competently built-up moments.

The central arc of the story, and one which the movie needs to get right, is the creation of Darth Vader.

The plot gave enough reasons for Anakin to join the Dark Side. His mother’s death and the massacre of the Tusken raiders should have been the launching pad that I expected this episode to capitalise on. They should have started with an ostracised Anakin. They should have begun by portraying his relationship with Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi as distant and cold. This, in addition to his doubts about the motives of the Jedi Council, his fears for Padmé’s life, his frustrations at not being able to control his ego and his other failings as a Jedi, should all be enough to lead to The Fall.

Instead we find him being on the best of terms with Obi-Wan, Windu and Yoda. Lucas had just wastefully reverted all that progression made in Ep II.

The overwhelming feeling, helped none by the acting, was that there just wasn’t enough of an impetus for him to attack Mace Windu or to commit those atrocities. It is true that losing faith in one’s own goodness can lead the person to do terrible things. However Christensen fails to sell this resignation and as a result I couldn’t buy the fact that he would submit completely to the Dark Side or massacre the younglings in the Jedi Temple.

The realisation of Palpatine’s betrayal and deceit should have driven Anakin away from his secret mentor and back to the Jedi fold. His continued allegiance to the chancellor was confounding.

All this made what was always going to be a challenging problem impossible to overcome. It would have taken a special performance by Christensen to make the transformation work but he isn’t up to the task.

The fault doesn’t lie with actor. It lies with the direction and editing. And it lies with the writing. The lines get so clunky that no one can deliver them without engendering a snicker (“from my point of view the Jedi are evil”).

Also, having gotten used to the cold ruthless half-man-half-machine of the Black Suit, that reaction to Padmé’s death was comical. The reaction to Padmé’s death should have been dealt with while he was being operated on, before he gets into the suit. Once he is in that suit he is restricted by the imprinted image of who is possibly the most famous cinematic villain.

The scenes between him and Natalie Portman, even those that were meant to be the most poignant, ended up inducing smirks. The chemistry between the two was non-existent and the uninspired writing of these scenes made it seem like a corny chic-flick.

Cheesiness pervades most of the dialogue, especially the ones given to McGregor. Although I liked the way he manages to change Obi-Wan from being an impatient Jedi Master to the Ben Kenobi of Alec Guinness (the beard probably had a lot to do with it), his reaction to the security hologram, a major emotional point in the film, was given too little time and directed in exactly the wrong manner. Again we are left without the required emotional payout.

The other pivotal character, Palpatine, was given some justice this time round. McDiarmid was poor in Ep II, but I think he manages to regain some lost ground with his performance in this film. His seduction of Anakin is admirably and seductively rationalistic. On this I must commend both the actor and Lucas, who chose not to take the easy way out on this particular point.

Unlike Anakin Skywalker, Palpatine remains a worthy villain for this epic. His deceit is subtle and ambiguous, his reason is almost justifiable, his motives almost understandable and as a result, his character, on a majority of occasions, remains credible.

On to the secondary characters.

Samuel Jackson is thankfully given a larger role. If I had my way it Samuel Jackson would be given all the roles. He is awesome and so was the duel. Jackson should be happy with Mace Windu’s death, it established him as the most powerful Jedi (although the possibility that Palpatine might have lost to sucker in Anakin is interesting to consider).

You know who else is awesome? Yoda. Yoda is super-awesome. Yoda is awesome incarnate and that’s all I have to say about Yoda.

General Grievous on the other hand sucked. Starting with that stupid name, General Grievous annoyed me constantly. Even the scenes without him were scarred by the memory of that annoyance. I laughed out loud (with much annoyance) when Grievous comes to the rescue by saying something that went along the lines of “I’ll take him myself”.

Bail Organa’s character conveyed the correct sense of stateliness and calm and his increased role was much appreciated. However he made me miss Mon Mothma. (She is credited on IMDB but I can’t remember her being there. Did she have a “Captain Antilles” type cameo?)

Speaking of cameos, I loved the opportunity to see Kashyyk but the way Chewbacca was introduced felt a bit forced. The collective “look it’s Chewie!” gasps from my fellow audience members would suggest that they disagreed with me.

As it has become typical of Lucas, the best parts of the films are those that rely on visual effects. The CGI, although not quite as seamless as in that other major motion trilogy (you know, the one that won 17 academy awards), it is still quite breathtaking. The two highly anticipated lightsaber duels between Kenobi and Skywalker and Yoda and Sidious was choreographed and edited with skill. They were brilliantly inter-cut and well set; one in the volcanic planet of Mustafar and the other on the very floors of the Galactic Senate. What could be more poignant?

A lot of the visual allusions in the final three films to the original trilogy were tastefully done. For example there was a sequence in Ep II where the camera scans through a large army of Clones and then rises to the sky, capturing the sinisterly familiar triangle shapes of Republican Assault Ships carrying them to battle. It made the hairs stand up. However that final shot of Lars and his wife looking out at the Tatooine sunset was just hammering it over out heads.

The opening sequence was thrilling. I had to take in a breath when the camera followed the two Jedi over the Star Destroyer and into a very full battle sequence. Then it started dragging on for a bit. The part where those droid thingies got onto Obi-Wan’s ship was unnecessary and a little bit silly.

So was that giant iguana.

And so was the dialogue. One of the reviewers felt that Star Wars would be a perfect candidate for a silent movie. I would’ve agreed if it weren’t for that fantastic score.

The criticism over the overbearing politics in Ep II arose mainly from the poorly written and delivered lines. I like politics and I saw great potential for Ep II and III to explore the way the senate had been crippled, the reasons behind the separatist movement, the increasing mistrust in democracy and the birth of the Empire. But again the execution was clumsy. The whole “you are either with me or with the enemy” allusions get was far too obvious for my tastes. I was wincing through most of that “so this is how liberty dies” stuff.

The clumsiness and heavy-handedness of the film does have one positive effect. It makes one appreciate the light-footed grace of the original trilogy. There was something in the banter of Han, Luke and Leia that all the advanced CGI just could not re-create.

It is true that the prequels, by the very nature of the plot, had to be darker, heavier and more ominous. But did it also have to be so plodding and forced? It felt like we were just slowly ticking off a list of things to get through before we can arrive at that ‘this-is-were-we-came-in’ point again.

6/10 stars

ED: This was written right after release. Reposted.

Movie Review: Frost/Nixon

I walked into Frost/Nixon thinking it was going to be a dry, 'let's watch this cos it's good for you' kinda film. I was surprised to find myself completely engrossed from beginning to end.

Frank Langella's Nixon is a fascinating exposition on a politician's psyche. He takes out the archetype and wrings it for all its complexity. I'm not sure who is more responsible for the nature of this portrayal, Langella or Ron Howard, but this is exactly the kind of thing artists should be working on; taking pieces of history and illuminating them with an intuitive light not available to those with journalistic constraints.

My favourite scene was one that never actually happened, in which Frost receives a call from Nixon. This occurs well into the second half of the movie, and Frost has spent every trick in the book trying to get Nixon to open up. The President seems completely out of Frost's league by any stretch of the imagination. The producers are facing an impenetrable stonewall, and Nixon is getting his way. He is on the road to the 'rehabilitation' that is dreaded by the journalists.

Then out of the blue, late at night, Frost recieves a call from Nixon. As Frosts stands there, not knowing how or where to lead the conversation, Nixon talks on. His old voice and hunch betrays the unsteady weight of his experience and you can just tell that he wants to let go of all the things he had long learned to suppress so masterfully.

Nixon quizzes Frost on his time at Cambridge then asks the single most revealing question in the film, "did they look down on you too?" He then devolves into a monologue, the performance of which was Langella's finest moment. The ego, the emptiness, the anger and the ambition are all laid bare, and it is truly a spectacle.

Anyone who becomes a president is hyper-ambitious. More ambitious that 99.9999% of the rest of us. They seek to be loved, they seek approval to a much greater degree than you or me. They are far more emotionally vested in their own success than we are. That is why they strive so hard on such a singular goal. Now imagine the psychology of such a person being hated by the entire country.

Anyone who has any kind of success as a politician also must love being with people, have that charm, or 'facility' as Nixon says, to get people to like you. The second revealing question comes again from Nixon to Frost; "you know those parties of yours? Do you actually enjoy them?"

A president never has a private moment, every action is under scrutiny, performed to the benefit of others. Imagine the stress of such a performance when you don't particularly like people. As a private person myself, I understand that tiredness. I feel it every time I'm at a party for a little too long. I'd imagine the weariness to be a hundred-fold for someone in Nixon's position.

The film is an excellent character study. The themes that I've described above are only the most prominent of a multifarious and intertwined exposition by Howard, the writer and the actors. There is a genuine good-hearted curiosity motivating their efforts, and it comes through very endearingly in this story. 9/10 stars.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Is Australia a racist country?

I woke up today to a Sunrise discussion on whether Australia is a racist country. The Victorian police say 1,447 people of Indian origin were robbed or assaulted in the state in 2007-2008. In the Western Suburbs of Melbourne around 30% of victims were Indian. Although Victoria with its 93,000 Indian students is getting all the attention, the attacks occur here in Sydney as well.

The Victorian police handled this in exactly the wrong way and the Indian press is understandably going ballistic. But I want to know if they are contextualizing the attacks with crime statistics from cities around the world where there are comparable Indian student populations.

I personally haven't encountered too much racism since high school, but then again 90% of my interactions are with the University crowd. They definitely aren't representative of the broader population. I've experienced only one incident of racial abuse in the workplace, but I don't think it was racially motivated. It was motivated by me being a noob at pulling beers and the bloke was a little drunk. He apologized immediately after and tipped me generously before he left.

Over the past few years we've been getting a really bad rap in the international media. The Tampa crisis, the related Children Overboard affair, the Redfern Riots, the Cronulla riots, Sol Trujillo's comments, and the treatment of refugees, have all contributed to this negative image.

I hate that we have to celebrate Australia Day on the day that the Brits invaded the country. It's offensive to the long history of this land and to the indigenous people who carry on its heritage. And as a firm republican with no British background, I find it offensive and exclusionary too.

The Rudd government has done well to reverse some of the damage done during the long Howard era by finally acknowledging our responsibility to the Stolen Generation and changing the asylum laws.

Relatively speaking, Australia isn't as racist as many other countries, including India with its prevalent caste systems. We wouldn't rate too badly against many of the European countries either, where the extreme right wing has seen more electoral success than here in Australia (One Nation was a Queensland aberration).

But we are a country of casual bluntness, our jokes are off-colour and we are easy with the insults. We are so confidant that our egalitarian ethic would be taken as given that we've adopted a laid-back attitude to possible offenses. This straight forwardness is great in most circumstances but I reckon it's doing some real damage when it comes to race issues. It is also providing shelter to the real racists out there.

Monday, May 25, 2009

My Tamil Tigers

The Tigers have finally silenced their guns. After three decades of war Sri Lanka and the Tamil diaspora begin a new chapter in their tormented history. While the nationalists are in single-minded jubilation, the international Tamil community and many moderate Sinhalese are in the process of trying to make sense of all the loss and suffering that has came along with this historic event.

I grew up without being exposed directly to too much violence, but the war was always in our consciousness. My parents fled to Jaffna from Colombo after their house was burnt down in 83. I was born an year after, arriving into a family traumatised by the pogroms of Black July.

During my early childhood I would be entertained by the young Tiger annas (an affectionate term for older brothers) who stopped by our house from time to time to talk to my dad. These were the years when the peaceful liberation movement had just turned into an armed struggle. It seemed that every Tamil family proudly welcomed 'the boys' into their homes when they needed to hide out from the government or needed medical assistance for their injuries.

Though I was forbidden to speak politics outside the house, I was raised with the tales of their sacrifice and I idolised my Tiger heroes. I saw it as an epic saga of battle between good and evil and I knew of many legendary characters involved in the idealistic beginnings of the LTTE.

There was Lt. Shankar who outran the Government forces whilst bleeding from a fatal bullet wound on his stomach. He managed to lose his pursuers and reach his fellow cadres. He then handed over his gun and fell unconscious in the arms of his friends.

There was Lt Seelan (Charles Lucas Anthony) who when injured and no longer able to run, ordered his subordinate to shoot him so that he wouldn't be caught alive. The first conventional fighting unit of the LTTE was named the Charles Anthony Brigade in his honour and Pirabakaran named his first born after his old second-in-command.

There was Colonel Kittu, who was betrayed by Indian intelligence to the GoSL. Rather than being captured alive or surrendering the weapons he had procured, he chose to blow himself up along with his ship when it was boarded.

My favourite member of the Iyakkam is also possibly the one of the most respected figures in the Tamil diaspora. In 1987, Ltn Thileepan, a soft spoken skinny bespectacled young man, began a satyagraha in response to the Indian occupation. He promised to fast until requests for the rights of Tamil civilians were met. Refusing Prabakaran's pleas to drink even a glass of water, he died after fasting for 11 days. It was Thileepan's death which swung the full backing of the Tamil community unreservedly behind the LTTE.

He was also the one of very few early Tigers whose names are still unsullied by the atrocities that were to be committed in the name of freedom.

The Tigers morphed from a people backed movement into a powerful, secretive, intimidating, military dictatorship. A fanatical personality cult formed around it's leader, and questioning him was tantamount to betraying the cause in some quarters.

Along with the ingenuity and almost fanatical courage that they showed on the battle field, they ruthlessly massacred fellow armed resistance movements. They enforced boycotts on elections and killed politicians who did not subscribe to their own goals. Most unforgivably, they held their own people as human shields in their final desperate struggle to hold on to power.

I understand those who supported them unwaveringly to the very end. I too value the outstanding dedication and bravery shown by the Tiger cadres. I also know of the hospitals, schools, the police and judicial systems run by their efficient administration in the Wanni region.

I appreciate the sacrifice and risk taken by those in the diaspora who donated a large percentage of their own wealth into preserving what they saw as the final defense of their people. When you see an existentialist threat there really aren't too many options left to you.

But I think the Tigers had outlasted their usefulness. They became the primary excuse for the Government to continue on with its persecution, and in the eyes of the International community, they turned what was really a human rights struggle into an ethnic war.

The immediate next step is humanitarian aid to the IDP camps. We need to lobby for the NGOs and media to get in there immediately. We need to lobby governments to pressure Sri Lanka into allowing unfettered access. We need to help remove any more excuses the GoSL has for keeping these camps active. And we need to enlist the help of the expat Sri Lankan community to achieve these goals.

What comes after that will have to wait. We are angry and frustrated. Now is not the time to make lasting mistakes. Now is the time put out the fires. The rebuilding comes later.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Political Compass

Economic Left/Right: 0.50
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.03

I scored a bit more to the right before the Global Financial Crisis hit. Now I'm a bit more receptive towards economic intervention by the Government.

No Libertarians in foxholes?

Take the test.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hitler was an Atheist, Darwin was racist and other fun facts.

This was originally posted in reply to a blogger who felt that lack of belief in the Creator leads to immorality. Luckily, having just read a couple of chapters in TGD, as recommended to me by Randy from the TNA, my response was ready-made.

I keep an open mind to the possibility that God might exist, but overwhelming evidence suggests that the probability is vanishingly small. Until I’m provided with falsifiable testable predictions and peer-reviewed evidence, I may just continue on with my current assumption, which I feel is the only honest assumption I can make.

My main objective here is to defend Atheism as something that does not automatically lead to moral relativism. The definition of Atheism is just the lack of belief in a Theistic God. The word Atheism does not suggest any specific moral code. You can be a bad atheist or a good atheist. You can be a bad guy with a moustache or a good guy with a mustache. I passionately feel that lack of belief in a Theistic God will not be of any danger to the individual’s moral codes. It may in fact lead to him being morally superior to the Theist as belief in god often comes with static, absolutist immoral proscriptions. It also opens up avenues for rational Universalist frameworks like Utilitarianism where reason can be used to navigate the complex waters of modern ethical behaviour.

Q1: There is plenty of evidence out there that Darwin was very racist.

Darwin’s personal moral character is not relevant to whether or not his science is correct. Evolution is no longer just Darwin’s alone. Countless scientists have tested, verified, modified and built upon his theory in the 300 hundred years since then, especially in the last 50 years with the discovery and analysis of DNA and genetic biology. Atheists don’t consider Darwin to be a prophet or moral guide. Most of us just think he’s one of the heroes of science (along with Newton and Einstein) who’ve contributed most to scientific progress.

Was he actually a racist? By today’s standards everyone was racist in his era, including Lincoln. Darwin was more liberal than most of his contemporaries. He strongly opposed slavery when most of his compatriots didn’t. Some biographers have even gone so far as to suggest his motivations for seeing through the development of this theory was to silence the pseudo-scientific rationale that was bandied around in favour of Caucasian supremacy and the racial subjugation of ‘lesser races’.

Q2: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong were all three atheists. Their governmental regimes killed 100 million combined. It was Stalin who said “1 death is a tragedy, 1 million is a statistic.”

Was Hitler Atheist? There is evidence to suggest he was not. In the Mein Kampf Hitler writes “I be the leader of the nation so that he could lead back his homeland into the Reich.” sank down on my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for the favour of having been permitted to live in such a time.” There he was referring to his reaction when the First World War was announced. He also wrote “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew. I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” He repeated this statement to the Reichstag in a speech in 1938. Rudolf Hess, his close friend, calls Hitler a “good Catholic”. After his annexation of Austria in November 1938 he says “I believe it was God’s will to send a boy from here into the Reich, to let him grow up and to raise him to be a the leader of the nation so that he could lead back his homeland to the Reich.”

It’s true that he could have been lying about his faith to gain votes and support from the largely Christian public and military. Some of his speeches after 1940 suggest that this might be so. Though he still believed in providence and God he started railing against Christianity. He was obviously not above lying to his people. After all, he is Hitler.

But that leads to the crucial point; the people who carried out his orders, those who actually killed the Jews and allowed the holocaust to happen, the soldiers and generals and citizens of Germany were all pre-dominantly Christian. If Hitler lied about his faith then he was only doing so to encourage and motivate the faithful. Can you imagine an atheist wanting to discriminate against a race of people? The motivation posited for the extermination of the Jews comes from a long European Christian tradition or blaming the Jews for their saviour’s death. Hitler utilised this to terrible effect.

Stalin definitely was Atheist, but he didn’t do his evil in the name of Atheism. He never mentioned Atheism as a motivation for killing people; he did not spur up the Atheistic mob anger to do his killings. He did it for the dogma of Communism and his personal thirst for power. Atheism doesn’t tell you to suppress others and their thoughts. Communism does.

Atheist individuals can be evil, just like religious individuals; but it takes religion and political dogma to make good individuals do evil things.

Q3: Darwin was convinced that eventually the dominant species would win out. Therefore, it seems to me that the whole of evolution is based on the idea that there is inequality. Therefore, it would be contrary to the best purposes of evolution to have a system of morality.

Hitler’s so called ‘Social Darwinism” was pseudo scientific prattle, nothing to do with the scientific theory of evolution. Very much like the pseudo scientific nonsense espoused by Hindus and New Agers to justify their unjustifiable beliefs.

In evolution it is the gene that seeks to survive by replicating and being selfish. The organism itself cannot be considered the basic unit of biological evolution simply because it cannot replicate exactly. To illustrate, my dog will eventually die and cannot clone itself or give birth to an exact copy. So there is no point for the dog itself to be selfish if it weren’t for competition that is occurring at the genetic level. The genes of the dog on the hand will replicate and live on in progeny. The genes of the dog compete in a pool of similarly self-replicating genes. From the perspective of the gene, the organism is merely its expression, a mode of supporting its survival and multiplication.

An organism that is powerful physically and obtains resources at the expense of others will increase the chances of its genes replicating. But this is only the most primitive of tactics.

Most animals live in social structures that help them survive much better than they would in solitary. This requires co-operation and altruism. Being altruistic to your children is the most obvious example, but it extends further. Bees, ants, meerkats, woodpeckers, mole rats look after their younger siblings. This kind of altruism favours genetic kin (linked story is about the debate between kin altruism and group altruism. I think it shows the scientific method in practice, where scientists are pleased when their long-held views are challenged).

The other kind of altruism is reciprocal. Flowers provide bees with nectar in exchange for pollinating. Hyenas hunt in packs and share their kill. Honeyguides search for bee hives and then lead ratels to the hive. Ratels break the hive and share the spoils. Honeyguides do not have the strength to break the hive and ratels (a type of badger) do not have wings to search for them. But together they accomplish their goal.

Humans are at a completely different league when it comes to social structure and we have developed instinctual morality and reason that makes it almost incomparable to what is going on in the rest of nature.

The altruism towards kin is of course very evident. And there is also altruism for the group, similar to that exhibited by individual bees in a colony. For many years we were loyal to our own tribes and hostile to external tribes as we competed for resources. As our social structures grew larger we started cooperating with external tribes and then other civilisations of tribes.

We develop punishments to punish those who don’t reciprocate; we seek out dependably altruistic mates, and friends. We try to be as altruistic as possible and cultivate a reputation for dependability.

Most of this happens on a subconscious level, we just feel fulfilled when we are useful to others and have friends who you can depend on. We crave social affirmation. It is our evolutionary instincts that are telling us social behaviour is desirable, just like it tells the ratel to follow the enticing flight of the honeyguide.

So genes are always selfish but the organism, the human, can be genuinely altruistic. He wants his society to survive, he wants his family and friends to do well, and over the course of human civilisation his feelings of goodwill extends over greater circles of association.

Yes selfish instincts, group loyalty and such that are given to us through evolution, but that is most certainly not nearly the whole picture.

Understanding that the well-being of individual and the well-being of society are driven by evolutionary forces will allow us to use reason to decide on which of our instincts to follow in complex situations. Selection pressures only result in rules of thumb, biological evolution is far outpaced by social evolution. It takes reason to apply our broad evolutionary instincts to specific moral problems.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

There are such things as Moral Absolutes

My main problem with religion is the lack of respect for reality. More importantly the lack of respect, and even derision shown towards the only successful method of discovering the Universe.

Most things in religion are so dangerously arbitrary. They do not follow the logical rules of falsifiability, repeatable testing and empiricism.

How can one trust the moral judgments of someone who backs them up with superstitious motivation? Especially in situations with numerous variables, where right and wrong are hard to discover, except through rational discourse.
The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education. The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action. - Einstein

I recently stumbled across this post which argued that there were no moral absolutes. I would fully agree that evolution is the source of morals and whether a particular action is ethical or not is dependent on context.

But that should never imply that morals are subjective. For anyone who believes in an external reality, for anyone who is a methodological naturalist, there are right answers and wrong answers to every moral situation. It doesn't matter how complex and grey those situations are. The complexity of the situation only determines for how long we disagree on the exact right answer and for how often we change our minds. It doesn't change the fundamentals of the situation.

If morality is proscribed by evolution, and evolution is a result of natural physical laws, then morality is an apex manifestation of the fundamental laws of nature.

As one of our great righteous heroes pleaded just a few decades ago, 'let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.'

ED: I'm talking about Moral Universalism not absolutism

Friday, May 01, 2009

Science the Random Adaptive Machine

The machine in this hilarious video reminded me of a passage in Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann's entertaining book The Quark and the Jaguar.

The first section is on Complex Adaptive Systems. These systems seek out rules and patterns in the information that is presented to them. They are then able to make useful predictions. For example a child learning a language does not have a look-up table memorised with every combination of words. Rather she/he constructs tentative rules based on the regularity with which various words occur together and the order in which they occur. Even at a surprisingly young age children can form meaningful (albeit not very grammatically accurate) sentences that they have never heard before.

The following passage is a segue into the chapter entitled "The Scientific Enterprise":
Nowadays robot design might include a form of communication among the legs, but not through a governing central processing unit. Instead each leg would have the capacity to influence the behaviour of the others by means of communication links. The pattern of strengths of influence of the legs on one another would be a schema, subject to variations produced, for example,, by input from a generator of pseudo-random numbers. The selection pressures influencing the adoption and rejection of candidate patterns might originate from additional sensors that measure what is happening not just to an individual leg, but also to the robot as a whole, such as whether it is moving forward or backward and whether its belly is far enough off the ground. In this way the robot would tend to develop a schema that yielded a gait suited to the terrain on which it was traveling and that was subject to alteration when the character of that terrain changed. Such a robot may be regarded as at least a primitive form of complex adaptive system.

I am told that a six-legged robot something like this has been built at MIT and that it has discovered, among other gaits, one that is commonly used by insects...when the robot uses this gait depends on the terrain.

Now consider, in contrast to a robot that learns a few useful properties of the terrain it needs to traverse, a complex adaptive system exploring the general properties, as well as a host of detailed features, of a much grander terrain, namely the whole universe.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Support religious freedom

This is the best video I've seen defending gay marriage.

Physics guy running for a local Texas school board.

The local school board doesn't have influence on curriculum matters, but it can't hurt to have someone with a Physics background near the kids. Seems like a reasonable bloke judging from his website.

Best of luck to Joel Walker and anyone helping him out.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Apologies on the comments.

Experiencing some issues with IntenseDebate comments displaying on my old template. I took the opportunity to pretty-up the blog a little bit.

All I did was change the CSS definitions for a couple of elements on one of the standard blogger templates. Comments will be re-installed shortly. Hopefully I can restore all original comments.

The graphic on the header is a digital sculpture of Prometheus by Scott Eaton.

EDIT: Sorry, IntenseDebate doesn't import back old comments. I've decided to go back to the old blogger comments system. It's clean and fast. ID is a little too buggy for my tastes at the moment.

Monday, April 20, 2009

When is faith not necessary?

Secularists would agree that we should all endeavour to minimise the influence of faith in our lives. After all, faith is the belief in things unseen, belief without measurable physical evidence.

When a belief is presented for examination, the bar that needs to be cleared is Falsifiability. As Karl Popper originally put it, “it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience”.

Falsifiabitlity has been a ridiculously successful test on the validity of any belief/explanation. The success of which is evident from the usefulness of the scientific process, as opposed to the comparatively negligible amount of knowledge gained from metaphysics and religion.

This criterion humbly acknowledges that none of us are in extraordinary communion with the forces of nature. There is no revelation.

But what if we were to apply the scientific process to every part of our lives? Should we force our friends to go through various tests to certify their loyalty? Should we secretly and repeatedly conduct experiments on our partners’ to measure their fidelity? Should we not wake up from our beds in fear that our senses could be deceiving us on the existence of such a bed to wake from?

Even scientists receive their zeal and hunger for knowledge on the faith that the external world behaves un-arbitrarily, and eventually nature is fully understandable using reason and empirical knowledge alone.

Faith permeates our daily life and reason does not illuminate a great swathe of decisions that we make. Faith is necessary in maintaining relationships, keeping hope, taking courage, and simply getting out of bed.

So to what extent is faith acceptable? Is it really just a matter of degrees? Are we ‘enlightened’ rationalists merely on the same spectrum as the fundamentalist flat-Earthers, albeit slightly less laughable?

Surely there is a quantifiable demarcation as to when we should abandon faith. When is it necessary to act on faith alone, and when is it harmful and against our self-interests?

Some cool Minority Report gadgetry

via John

Science is hot


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Flowchart: The Scientific Process

This flash driven flowchart by UCAL's Museum of Paleontology is an invaluable resource. This should be shown to every high school science student.

Science is not just a body of facts.


Atheism or Secular Humanism

Over at the Eye of Polyphemus, the blogger differentiates between straight up Atheism and Secular Humanism:

There is a simple way to decide whether one is an atheist or secular humanist. If you think the world would be a better place without religion, you are a secular humanist. You may call yourself just an atheist, but you are not. You have gone beyond a non belief in deities to a set of arguably cultish beliefs.

Leaving aside his claim of Secular Humanism being a cult, that differentiation is quite interesting.

I am a secular humanist, and I wish everyone else was too. Intellectually I understand the position that someone who believes in the supernatural cannot be trusted to make sound moral decisions in complex situations. The fact that there is even a stem-cell debate is evidence of this.

We are all aware of the ill-effects of religious belief, but there are also benefits. Is society on the whole better off without such superstition? Are we overestimating the rational capacity of humans?

I have personally witnessed someone very close to me seeking solace in religion when her child was seriously ill. Without her belief she would not have had the continual strength and hope to battle on through the great many hardships that were presented to her. Having seen such evidence of the benefits of faith, it is rather difficult for me to indulge myself in the righteous zeal of the Anti-Theists.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Interesting Presentation

I like this format. You turn the page by going to the corner and flicking the mouse down.

Content is accurate, but a little one-sided.

So much for all that.

What happened to bi-partisanship?


Despite all the good the new administration has done, we cannot excuse this:

Happily this violation has shown that the many Bush critics are not shy of criticizing Obama for the same mistakes. Can the same even-handedness be expected from O'Reilly, Olbermann's counterpart at FOX?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

People not Krugman

Simon Johnson,former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund and professor of Entrepreneurship at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Q&A on the Geithner Plan by Brad DeLong, professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the United States Department of the Treasury in the Clinton Administration.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winning economist, professor at Columbia University. recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal, former Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank.

Adam Posen
, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.