Friday, 30 October 2009

Information Spreading

It would be fair to say that there's a gap between science and culture. Science and in particular has crafted technology in such a way that almost every aspect of our lives are dependent on the discipline, while the average person wouldn't know how their television set works. (beyond the basics I don't either)

As a scientifically-inclined layman, I sometimes get frustrated at the difficulty at finding particular information. To have a good access to information seems vital in this modern age. It's not enough to be aware of the basics, we need to be informed and be able to tell science from pseudoscience.

And there are those now who exploit this medium and do it well, using the same anecdotal means as before but now on a global scale. Information is cheap, misinformation less so. Dawkins in his new book typified this by showing that a comment he made about the Cambrian explosion has been quote mined on a ratio of ~20:1.

Having people work on correcting misinformation isn't free, however. Expertise in any given topic takes time and energy, it's just not feasable. Nor are such people needed, we don't need a professor at Harvard to personally counter each bit of misinformation. Rather an attune collective of informed laymen should be sufficient.

To give one example, on a forum I frequent the claim that Darwin recanted evolution on his deathbed was brought up. It wasn't brought up by a creationist, just someone who had heard this false claim and propagated it on. This claim is false, and even though I'm not a Darwin biographer, I was able to correct that claim and point him in the right direction.

The web and in particular web 2.0 has been great. The technology is there to allow for global access to data and information. Science in its current state can be made accessible to a wider audience at all levels, teaching can extend beyond the lecture theatre and into the homes of anyone who is interested.

In my view such an imperative is needed, it should be a focus of science education bodies in terms of outreach to the general public. And the cultural spread of information from anecdotal sources might be the most anti-scientific means one can think of, it's the way that since the dawn of humanity our species has transmitted information. We need as many people possible to not only know what they are talking about, but have the resources to back it up.

I'm not going to ever write a technical paper and further the knowledge of mankind. My understanding of how the universe works is not geared towards a life in the lab or public sphere. It's what I do in my spare time, it's a hobby, an intellectual persuit to keep my mind occupied and interested. Yet I don't need to publish in order to be useful.

It's at the grass roots where people can make a real difference, and where in my view the scientific establishment should be putting more work into supporting. Science beyond all else is free enterprise, yet it seems that paradoxically the open inquiry is limited to the establishment while religion has descended from the establishment and become a free-for-all.

I'm not claiming to have the answers here, only what I think would be helpful to me. Part of my frustration recently is that I'm reading wonderful things in books such as Your Inner Fish or Why Evolution Is True, yet all I can do is reference a book when I try to relay such information. If they were web resources, I'd be able to give people a link to the direct information and thus increase the chances of people actually reading them.

I've enjoyed immensely that there are several Youtube channels dedicated to putting up lectures both public and in courses, that iTunes hosts several lectures and lecture series for free download. That there are podcasts dedicated to spreading scientific thought and critical thinking. It's a great start, and hopefully more is done in the future to keep this trend going.

Anyway, the reason I wrote this was because Jerry Coyne mentioned on his blog about a public lecture series being held in Chicago over the next few days for the Darwin celebrations. Yet even though I'm stuck on the other side of the world, thanks to the internet and the organisers of the event I'll be able to see the talks online. This is fantastic news, it'll give many people the chance to see something they wouldn't have previously seen and it will be preserved in digital media. This is the kind of thing I think the scientific community can do for a little extra effort that can go a long way in making an informed public.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Tuesday Thought Experiment: Accountability

In the modern age of neuroscience, it is seen that the brain is no less deterministic than anything else in nature. That is to say that the brain is made up of the same atoms that are governed by the forces of physics. So that while it seems to us that we have choices, the path taken in the brain is determined and thus free will is an illusion. Since our actions are causally determined, we cannot be held accountable for our actions.

So consider the following scenario:
A woman is being charged with murder, and the evidence presents that she did the case beyond reasonable doubt. All tests reveal she understands what it means to murder someone, what moral and societal implications there are for such an act, shows remorse for her actions and wishes to atone. Nearing the end of the trial, it is revealed that a toxicology report finds drugs in her system that affected parts of her brain involved in decision making. Is she as accountable in light of this evidence as she was before this evidence emerged?

The hardest concept at least for me to grasp about the natural world is when it applies to the brain. How can I relate the notion of free will and accountability alongside what is inevitably a causal product? Quite clearly the experiment shows that our notion of free will and accountability differs given circumstances, yet shouldn't it apply that a woman who acted on her own volition has the same accountability as one who was mentally challenged or under the influence of a mind-altering device?

This seems to show one of two things: a) that our understanding of the forces of nature is wrong, or b) that our application of the forces of nature to us as agents is wrong. That is to say, either the brain works contrary to the laws of nature or we're thinking about it the wrong way.

To me the latter option seems a better path to take. Here's why. The cells in our body are constantly dying and being replaced. We are taking in new atoms and losing old atoms. It's an odd notion that while we experienced those memories formed in childhood, not a single atom that's in our body today was there when that memory was first formed. The neural structure is still there, but the atoms that formed that structure ain't.

What this is trying to point out is that we are not a summation of the atoms inside us, to think of us in purely physical terms misses who and what we are. We are not the atoms that make us, even if we are made of atoms. So while it seems that free will is irreconcilable with the notion of the forces in physics, thinking in purely physical terms negates what it means to be an agent. Dan Dennett has a term for this kind of thinking: greedy reductionist.

To get off the tangent and back to the reality, what does this mean for free will? If I weren't speculating and over-stretching, then I wouldn't be doing my job as a blogger. My interpretation is that free will shouldn't be taken on the atomic level, that it makes no sense to think about it as pure material. To talk of free will as contra-causal inadequately describes what is really going on in our heads.

A grown woman with mental illness isn't held as accountable in the same way that a woman without such disorder is held accountable. Yet if we took the notion that the only free will can be contra-causal, that is if our brain function is purely determined by the laws of physics, then surely we couldn't hold anyone accountable for actions they take as opposed to recognising will, intent and understanding of consequences as we do now.

This is not to argue for punishment, but to argue for a differentiation between how we look at free will in the light of the material mind becoming more and more empirically verified. It shouldn't be that one who is mentally ill or under the influence of mind-altering devices should be referred to having the same level of accountability as one who is not. It seems to me that one has to either discard the notion that there is no such thing as free will or that free will doesn't need to be contra-causal.

It should be recognised that we are moral-based agents capable of making moral-based decisions. Our brains are wired for making choices, for operating with one another and in an environment that can never be relied upon to be exactly the same. That our brains have capacities for reasoning, for considering implications and making choices based on those implications.

This doesn't break free from causality (and quantum randomness provides no better than to add arbitrary randomness) but it does in my mind give a capacity to talk about human agency in the context of decision making. That those who don't have such capacities or have those capacities inhibited cannot be held accountable in the same way that one who has those capacities. That free will is for the mind to operate as an agent not in isolation but with respect to other agents. The inhibition of such capacities takes away responsibility, and thus cannot be accountable.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Friday, 23 October 2009

At The Centre Of Our Galaxy

There is a black hole at the centre of our galaxy, it's about 2 million times more massive than our sun. It sits about 30,000 light years away, and orbiting it is something of the magnitude of 400 billion stars spread across a galaxy that is close to 100,000 light years wide. Surrounding it are several dwarf galaxies each containing billions of stars, and the nearest comparable galaxy is 2.3 million light years away.

To put that in human terms, imagine a hypothetical electromagnetic wave were to reach the earth from the black hole. When this left the black hole, humanity had not yet reached the Americas. No animals or crops were domesticated, homo sapien were still competing in Europe with Neanderthals. No civilisation, no written language, no beer.

Yet this arbitrary point that's signified by it's relative position to us is only a short distance away, yet in the time it would take light to travel from it to us (ignoring the obvious problem with this hypothetical) all that we hold dear about ourselves has happened. The way of life our ancestors lived is now completely alien to us, and the way we live couldn't be dreamed of back then.

We have a vision of eternity in our eyes. How could we not, for how can we experience non-existence? We didn't exist for over 13.7 billion years, homo sapien extends back a mere 250,000 years or so and I extend back 25 years. The mind though incapable of imagining non-existence only exists for a split second compared to how long the universe has existed, and even less compared to what it will exist.

When faced with facts like these, it is to my mind impossible to reconcile that human significance should be essential to the fabric of the cosmos. It's quite obvious that while we are surrounded by humanity and see the significance of what we do, it's not universal. That is to say, in the black hole at the centre of our galaxy it doesn't matter one bit about what we do. Our existence and actions are entirely inconsequential beyond the confines of this planet.

The moon is the farthest a human has gone, just over 1 light second away. Yet we have seen light that is 13.7 billion years old, galaxies over 13 billion light years away. Yet the claims of morality and meaning are somehow meant to mean something, that there is some absolute notion of right and wrong beyond our planet. It makes no sense!

the false dichotomy that seems to be a part of discussions along this nature is that there's a choice between absolute and individualism. That if we don't have a universal we can use then we are trapped in individualism where everyone decides for themselves. As there is no universal, then what do we have to break away from the frightening notion that in the end there is only ourselves?

But there is not only ourselves, we don't live life in isolation regardless of the isolated nature of the self. The connections we form with others, the interaction and the relationships it fosters all work to bring us as individuals into a greater circle than what would be if we were isolated. Communities form, people work with each other and for each other. Thus we achieve a transcendence from individualism, our lives are interwoven with the lives of others.

This is a localised transcendence, falling out of the awareness of and interaction with the existence of others. And this should be all that is needed. We don't need the universe to care about us, the universe can and does get on fine without us. We don't need ultimate significance in order for what we do to be significant. What we do is confined and localised to this tiny region of space, yet what more do we need?

This is what I can never grasp about those wanting transcendent morality or meaning, it makes no sense to think of our actions as being ultimate. They are localised, contingent, and affect those around us. Only 400 years ago it was still widely believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe, now this planet is not even the centre of our solar system, one of about 400 billion stars that currently orbit the supermassive black hole, which is but one galaxy of billions in this four dimensional bubble.

The great asymmetry in our relationship with the universe is we ascribe meaning to objects that don't reciprocate the relationship. i.e. we care about whether Pluto is a planet but our musings have no bearing on Pluto. It shows something about humanity, that is there is an appreciation for something far greater than us, and that we expect that to be a reciprocal relationship.

The point being in all this is that for us to have meaning and morality, we need not look beyond ourselves. Because if we do we miss what it means to be human and run the risk of anthropomorphising reality. Indeed, there's nothing more geocentric than that very idea. And we are geocentric, the earth is our home and our vantage point on the universe. But it is the height of arrogance to assume that because we have a geocentric mindset that the universe should reflect this. We need not ascribe meaning beyond our confines, rather to bring back the speculation to a localised level with localised rules. The brain cannot comprehend just how grand the universe is, and how insignificant we are in comparison. But it terms of this planet, what we do here is critical for ourselves and all that we hold dear.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Damnable Doctrine

Being an atheist should be no different from being a theist. We atheists aren't freaks, sub-humans, immoral scum, etc. We are just regular people. There's nothing special about being an atheist, perhaps other than to cut off an easy source of community.

The problem as I see it is that so many characteristics that are universal to humanity have been tightly coupled to the religious belief that seeks to feed such traits. It may be that as ideas, religious belief can fill a need for meaning and morality, but that doesn't mean that meaning and morality are religious ideas. God is a potential solution to the need for existential meaning, not a creation of it. In time, this distinction has been blurred so one cannot speak of one without the other.

This leads to what Dan Dennett calls "belief in belief", summed up so well by Voltaire "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." Yet this notion is ultimately backfiring in this multicultural society, especially one where more and more people are forsaking religion altogether. The fear now is that a godless society will be immoral, nihilistic with no regard for ones fellow. Each out to get their own, rampant individualism, and inevitably the breakdown of all sense of law and decency.

While not all hold this bleak outlook of a godless society, there still represents some curiosity about what it means to be atheist. The show aired on ABC TV a few months ago more than anything else cried out how little is understood by what it means to be human. All stemming from this fake notion that humans are defined by ideas, meaning that a categorisation of individuals into respective world views and dehumanising individuals based on what seems lacking in the ideas.

And atheism is very lacking, it is by its nature. It's describing people by what they aren't, so how can one possibly expect to talk about atheist morality without falling into a contradiction? I'll repeat this again, atheism is not a world view - it's the negation of theism. That's all.

There's nothing special about me, about where I get my sense of right and wrong, or how I find meaning. Yet because I don't have a religion, it's taken as if I'm somehow lacking as a human being. That I need to find an idea that gives me a reason to be good or makes life worth living. Not that these fall out of being human, it can't be that.

The inadequacy of this attempt to categorise people by their religious beliefs should cry out that a different approach to such matters is required. That one shouldn't accept the simple answer but should consider a introspective look at the big questions.

If we look at a body of water, we don't assume that the earth is round - it looks flat! Just as it looks like it is the sun orbiting the earth. It takes a deeper consideration than just looking at the appearance. Likewise it might seem like meaning is given by a divine source, but that's only the appearance. By looking deeper, there is something more profound that explains both the appearance and the reality.

It is a damnable doctrine that teaches otherwise, that teaches us to reject the human condition and define ourselves by our ideas. That there is something intrinsically wrong with being human. The failing is that universal features central to our being are passed off as divine hand-downs. Ergo this view means that the absence of belief is taken as being lacking something core.

The point I'm trying to make in all this is that there really shouldn't be anything alien about the notion of non-belief; that atheists share that same spirit of humanity that is all too often attributed to the gods. This kind of thinking is wrong, it has been shown to be wrong since the time of the ancient Greeks, it's time this damnable doctrine is cast aside.

Tuesday Thought Experiment: Subjectivity

"My opinion is as good as yours" is something you often here when discussing what we consider subjective forms, such as art for example. When it comes to what we like or dislike, we assume that ultimately it comes down to our own thoughts and feelings - and no-one can tell us otherwise. Who are Rolling Stone to argue that the latest Pearl Jam CD is bloated and repetitive? What we like and dislike ultimately comes down to ourselves.

So consider the following thought experiment...
There are two people brought in to assess a song written by what the record company see as the next big thing. The first person is a music theory professor, who has studied music for decades and has absolute pitch. The second person is someone pulled off the streets who is essentially tone deaf and has had limited exposure to music. Both people listen to the song and both form their own opinions on the music.

Both people have offered their opinion as to what they thought of the music, yet we should be able to distinguish between the opinions of someone who does and who doesn't know what they are talking about. At the same time, we do not hold the opinion of the expert as absolute. Yet if it were true that one opinion is as good as another then we should no more consider the trained and learned opinion than we do the random opinion of someone on the street.

So what does such an experiment tell us about the nature of art? It should be apparent that complete subjectivity is as much a myth as complete objectivity, yet this should say something deeper about the endeavour of art in itself. How can there be even the slightest objectivity at all?

And that in itself should cast some light of art in explaining something about the human condition. That certain works will be preserved over time, cherished by future generations and still have something to add. We can vividly recall the names of great dead composers such as Bach or Beethoven. Or writers like William Shakespeare. Their works have well surpassed their generation and audience and still resonate with the learned in their respective disciplines today.

While most high school students I'm sure are cursing Shakespeare's name (I recall a scene from Blackadder where he goes back in time and kicks Shakespeare "for every school child for the last 400 years") yet while in high school I questioned why we were reading the likes of Othello or King Lear, have a new-found appreciation for the genius present in those plays. Of particular note, the Shakespearean fool comes to mind every time I see Jon Stewart doing what the media should be doing.

The objectivity it seems is not a universal, rather it is an expression of who we are as a species. That within limits, there are those who can better capture an essence of ourselves and express it in such a way that is transcendent of time and culture. That it has the capacity to touch and inspire another and do so that resonates in such a profound manner. But perhaps I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

The point is that when one person says their opinion is just as valid as another, it may be wise to agree in order to stop a fight, but in reality such a statement is nonsense.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

An Accommodationist?

I'm pretty late to the punch on this issue, although not through lack of want. Rather I'll say it's taken time to properly think through my position and come up with where I stand on the issue. A few months ago I was asked about what I thought between the conflict between science and God. My answer then was it depends on your view of God; that if you take a biblical literalist perspective then yes they are irreconcilable but it's not necessary to be a literalist.

When I was asked, he had no idea at all of my beliefs (or lack thereof), it came from me mentioning I was a bit of a science nerd. The point is that I pushed a very accommodationist position while online in semi-anonymity I speak of the incompatibility. If accommodationism is a question of tactics, I'm all for it. But if I think the magisteria are nonoverlapping and complementary then I've got to say that there is an irreconcilability between science and God.

Basically irreconcilable
Scientific discoveries have implications for theology. There, I said it. Who God is and what God does is bounded within our understanding of nature. The size and age of the universe, the process of evolution, the way it all works - these reflect on the very nature of the idea of God.

God is a god of the gaps. While this might sound harsh and unfair, it's important to remember what is posited at least in the Judeo-Christian construct. The creator may have moved back from a life-giving potter and a celestial architect, but there is still that element of creation which is not based on us knowing but what we don't know.

The most popular argument going around today seems to be a cosmic equivalent of the watchmaker argument - the universe happens to have several variables / ratios that need to be so precise in order for the conditions for life that there must be a creator. This is a god of the gaps argument, for we don't know how exactly how it comes to be as they are; it's like saying that life needs a creator pre-Darwin.

What would a multiverse do to such a theory? If evidence were presented that universes form in a Darwinian model (say through black holes) then what would that do to the notion of a creator? What about if the universe was shown to be boundless? That is to say that there was no creation event, like saying there is nothing further north of the north pole. In either scenario, this has disastrous implications for God in the sense that is posited.

In this hypothetical case, it would seem that God would have to again be changed in definition or discarded altogether. Right now, putting God as "before" the big bang, the uncaused cause, the prime mover, the infinity to the finiteness of space-time doesn't look like a gap that would easily be filled.

This argument should make the case that what we view of God is influenced by science. And there are certain observations that are potentially lethal to the god hypothesis. Victor Stenger writes a very persuasive argument this has already happened in the aptly named God The Failed Hypothesis. It's well worth the read.

The coward's way out
So now I've in my own mind showed there's an irreconcilability between certain scientific findings and God - to the point where I feel that God doesn't exist. So why didn't I argue this when I had the chance? Why did I argue that God and science are reconcilable? Well there are a few reasons:

The first is dinner table diplomacy. In general I don't want to make religion a focus of my life, nor do I want to make it the focus of my interactions with others. As far as I'm concerned, as long as they aren't pushing their religion on me I have no reason to call it nonsense.

The second is that I don't really want to see the eradication of religion. Fundamentalist religion? Yes. Everyday people who believe but don't use it to harm others (I don't have to be against Judaism to be against involuntary circumcision) then all the more power to them. If they can accept that I use alcohol to alter my mind, then I can accept they use religion to alter theirs.

The third reason is my main reason for biting my tongue - it's not my place to tell them what they believe. I think there is an incompatibility between the findings of science and God much like I see there's a logical flaw in the notion of the trinity. This sounds trivial but I find it a very powerful argument not to say anything. If they can define their god in whatever way they choose and that includes being able to reconcile god and scientific principles.

This might seem like a coward's way out, but I really don't want to define to theists what their own beliefs should be. Does one have to believe in the bible as the word of God to be a Christian? Evidentially not. And for me to say it should be would make me no better than Ken Ham.

Again this may come down to my liberal Christian education, but I've never really seen the bible as anything other than man's desire to explain God. It's the word of man trying to contemplate the divine, indeed mythology to me only makes sense in that way.

As an atheist, it would make sense if I could push religion into the Ken Ham fairy tale section. The moon as a light in the sky? Ha! Day and night before there was a sun? Ha! Women from a rib? Ha! Rejecting Christianity would be so easy if this were the case. In any society with rational people, it would be downright embarrassing to hold such archaic beliefs. But no, this is not the beliefs of all Christians nor has it been historically. Some of these historical beliefs are compatible with methodological naturalism, so it would be misleading to defeat biblical literalism then claim to have killed god.

Promoting science
As I recently blogged, atheism is not my worldview. It's a negation of the positive beliefs in interventionist deities. It doesn't say what I do believe in, let alone what I find important. At this stage in society, I can't find a better cause than the promotion of science.

And this is where I flail a bit in regard to this accommodationist argument. I freely admit I see an incompatibility between science and god, of course I would because I am an atheist. But at the same time I don't see it my place to define religion for others, if they believe that God and science are consistent in their worldview then that's their choice.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Gradualist Fallacy

A random thought for today

Over the years of debating creationists, I've come to expect a level of intellectual dishonesty. As the saying goes, you can't reason someone out of a position they weren't reasoned into. So any discussion is going to involve a healthy dose of logical fallacies, especially straw man arguments and false dichotomies.

One particular line of thinking I see crop up time and time again which is really a few fallacies in one, but it might be best to put in the context of a single fallacy which I shall call The Gradualist Fallacy:
When analysing a process over time that acts in a complex system, the gradualist fallacy is the expectation that there should be strict uniformity over the entire sequence to the point where the non-linear progression causes the underlying mechanism to be dismissed.
If it is meant to rain 1000mm a year, the expectation is that each day there should be 3mm, otherwise it cannot be said it rains at all.

The most obvious example I can think of this in action is by those who advocate flood geology - the notion that there was a global flood some 4400 years ago. Now this is utter nonsense and completely contradicted by the fossil record. But what some advocates do is make the dichotomy between it all happening gradually in a uniform matter or by one big event. So they look for anomalies in the geological record, events that are caused by floods (localised that is) as evidence that a gradual process is inadequate to explain and therefore Noah!

Another example would be the misuse of punctuated equilibrium. Because evolution isn't uniformly gradual in the fossil record (anyone who understands evolution would know why it would be absurd to see it as uniform), it's taken as evidence against evolution. Living fossils pose no problem to the theory, but young earth creationists such as Harun Yahya see it as proof that evolution didn't happen.

The point of creating this fallacy is to highlight what is a straw man tactic that seems to be quite common among apologists. The fallacy itself is specialised, characterised by trying to explain data in a complex system by just one of the mechanisms involved without taking into account that the data doesn't exist in isolation. There's no reasoning people out of a position they weren't reasoned into, but it's a good exercise in logic to identify just how the human mind can fail when trying to rationalise beliefs that one came to for non-smart reasons.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Philosophy At The Office: Procedure

My first proper entry in this category, and it needs to be said what perspective I come from. I'm a developer working as part of a larger team of developers, as one development team of many in the same project, with business analysts, testers, managers and the client themselves all looking at the product that needs to be built.

The way the procedure seems to go: The client gives the requirements to the business analysts, who translate the requirement into a technical specification. From there the developer builds it as per requirements which the testers keep the developers on task and to specification.

The goal at the end of all this theoretically is working software - the business value is a functional system. So the assumption would be that consequences are all that matter. In this scenario, the time frame and resources should determine procedure. There's more than one way to skin a cat of course, so the inevitability in such a large project is that there's bound to be different people with their own preferences, or heaven forbid have the one way they know to go about things.

In a high-risk project, it makes sense to go for a low-risk procedure. Even if the procedure isn't right for the task at hand. I'm referring to what should make anyone in software development shudder - waterfall. Anyone unfamiliar with the methodology should note what it entails: a procedural manner with a set of clear goals at each step of the way. In effect, it's a managers dream - it allows for monitoring of the entire process.

But therein lies the problem, if the end product is what ultimately that matters then working to minor goals at each step of the way will only be a success if those goals are properly laid out. Otherwise the procedure becomes not about achieving business value but about checking off goals.

The dilemma for the developer is ultimately its their head on the chopping block. They have to manage the expectations of meeting the deadline with business value at the same time as meeting the intermediate goals. The inevitability of such a procedure is that unless the intermediate goals are to do with development (as opposed to functionality) then the system is going to fall over under even the slightest strain.

Imagine building a house, and the requirements including having a kitchen and bathroom. Now from the builders perspective the house needs to have plumbing and electricity wired in, but the time frame doesn't accommodate such requirements. Instead it needs the kitchen in place by Friday. It has to have a dishwasher, a fridge and a sink, as those will be what the owner wants. So until Friday the focus is on having those appliances in, with the builder's progress being measured by them being there. So when Friday comes about and there's no electricity or plumbing, what good is meeting the aesthetic when there's so much behind the scenes not accounted for?

This sounds absurd because it is absurd. When management has their goal on a diswasher being in the kitchen, when the business analysts are specifying that a dishwasher needs to be there and the testers marking solely on the presence of the dishwasher, how can an feature-driven approach succeed? It can't see what is happening behind the scenes nor can it accommodate for it.

The best one could do is quickly rig up some electricity and plumbing for that room in particular. But surely the same electrical circuitry in the kitchen will be in other rooms too. It makes no sense to build a house without getting all the wiring in place, likewise building software component by component can't work without an underlying structure to it all.

It is the hope that reason will win out, that methodology for development is chosen by the circumstances as opposed to familiarity or monitoring. Otherwise there will be pain, as participating in the process and achieving what the client wants become opposite outcomes!

Reading Your Mail

The case involving copyright infringement and iiNet will be worth following to see what the outcome will be. We are now in a digital age and digital economy, any sense of ownership of information is quickly fading with the ease of use of replicating technology. The same convenience that allows these companies and individuals to make a greater profit also relinquishes control of the source material.

What to do to stop copyright infringement in the digital age is no easy solution. Copy protection (especially in the case of games) only draws ire from the consumer, suing is bad publicity and not a way to coerce behaviour. As I've discussed before, while they are by no means perfect, products such as Steam or Netflix show that there are ways to run a viable business in this digital age.

In this case, there seems to be an implicit consequence of such behaviour. Now our internet traffic is being screened for any illegal material. By creating a download culture, we have lost our privacy. So while the net can be used for personal and intimate communication, we have given an excuse for corporations and government to look at the information coming in.

This should be very concerning. Consider the same situation only with physical means of distribution, that the post office should check what the contents of someone's mail every time they suspected it could be copyrighted or illegal material. I'm guessing that very few would be okay with such a practice in place.

This tactic is not really going to work without bringing in draconian measures, by making the potential consequences overtake the convenience of piracy. It's worth noting that even given such consequences for drug posession / use that a large portion of the population still chooses to use illicit substances. Does that mean that everyone should be forced to have police search their house in order to eradicate the problem?

In practice the two examples are unfeasable. It would take so much more resource power than it is worth. The digital age however removes that barrier - what can be checked can be done so without anything more than software. Like the information itself being easy to copy, so can anything you do on the internet.

Questions of practicality aside, what ethical considerations do we have when considering the question of allowing individuals to be free on the internet? In the same sense that I would feel uneasy about having my mail read or police searching my house, I feel uneasy about governments and corporations scanning the information flowing to my computer.

The response which seems to follow is that if you had nothing to hide then it wouldn't be a problem. But that misses what the objection is to. I don't want others going through my things regardless of whether there is something to hide. The fact that I don't have drugs in my house does not mean that it's okay for police to search my house for drugs.

The technology has the potential for Orwellian surveillance, so legislation needs to be put in place not to monitor but to protect the infrastructure from being used in such a way. As for illegal downloads, surely it's coming to the point where the focus should be on being innovative with the technology as opposed to trying to protect an archaic means of distribution.

It will take a new generation of businessmen to maximise the potential of the technology, it might mean a shift in what products make money and what it means to be a consumer, but these things will sort themselves out with time. The potential revenue loss gives them no more rights to check the internet than book companies have to monitor any interactions to make sure people aren't lending copyrighted books to others.

Atheism Is NOT My Worldview

I am an atheist, I'm not ashamed to admit this and I'm more than happy to use the label when people ask me about my religious beliefs. Yet atheism is not my religion, it is not my worldview. When The Atheists aired on Australian TV a number of months ago, the host asked what do atheists believe in? Part of the problem with the world is that it is a negative - it's not-theism. You might as well say non-astrologer, it won't tell you anything other than what it's not!

Constructing a positive reality
Many times I've gotten into discussions with theists online and at one stage I've complained that they aren't actually interested in what I believe in. Rather it seems that time and time again, they are happy to use assumptions based on others who use the label. And given I'm science-oriented, if one would base their assumptions on what it means to be an atheist on the likes of Dawkins, they wouldn't be too far off the mark. But my point stands, I've been stuck time and time again arguing what my position is not rather than what it is.

Because atheism is simply the not-belief (or belief in not) of gods, what does that say about morality? What does that say about meaning? What does that say about life? About the human condition? About our place in the universe? It doesn't say anything about those. Yet I'm still human. I seek and find meaning, I act in a moral sense, I have my own thoughts about what it means to be human.

I'm in no way special. What I mean by this is that there's nothing particularly distinct in what I believe and why. My moral sense is not derived from any particular worldview, rather it is an accumulation of teachings, experience, and an expression of my genes. I have a sense of what is right and wrong, but that isn't derived from any metaphysical worldview.

My point being in all this is who I am and what I stand for is personal. It can be influenced by others, similar to many (it would be absurd if it wasn't), but ultimately it does not (nor can it) come down to any particular label. How I find meaning, how I determine what is right and wrong, what value I put in others and myself - these are personal and I do exactly the same as everybody else. While it might be easy to dismiss Christians or Muslims on a Christian worldview or a Muslim worldview, I don't think this is helpful or even accurate.

Not to presuppose
People aren't born with beliefs, rather beliefs are shaped through experience, culture, interaction with others, and mimicry, all filtered through a brain that works in a largely pre-defined way. Take language for example. No-one is born with the any particular programmed into their brain, yet there is the capacity to learn language. And while English and Chinese are both vastly different languages, the brain handles it in both cases. I grew up in an English-speaking country and thus I learnt to speak English. I couldn't have spontaneously started speaking Chinese even though if I were born into a different country that would have been my language.

The very notion of a presupposition belies the process of ascertaining ideas. It is proof by definitions and in my view gets in the way of actually discussing beliefs. I don't remain an atheist because I presuppose atheism, rather in the 25 years or so that I've lived and experienced the world what I've learnt tells me that deities are not a good answer. This might change in the future, I don't know. I may or may not have believed in ghosts as a child, maybe at one stage I thought that homoeopathic remedies actually did something beyond placebos. I can't remember now. I used to be way more libertarian than I am now, that changed.

Worldviews are tentative, they change as people change. A testimony of miracles as historical events may have meant more to me as a child than they would now. These days I'm not convinced that miracles can happen. I don't presuppose them out of existence, rather I've become more sceptical the more I've investigated the matter. I'm not born with a staunch monoist perspective, in fact research suggests the opposite. Yet I'm a monoist now despite what feel strong dualistic tendencies.

At one stage, people believed the sun orbited the earth. These days we know better, yet it's amazing to think that the only reason we know better is because someone bothered to make predictions about what kinds of observations to expect given the different circumstances. From out point of view, we see the sun rise in the east and set in the west. We're stationary. Why is it now that the sun is a big nuclear reactor sitting 150,000,000km away which we orbit by the force of gravity every 365 days or so? Why can't it be Helios being pulled by a chariot across the firmament? If I was born into ancient Greece, chances are I'd be believing the latter story.

My point is that beliefs are tentative, dependent on time and place. This holds true for me as well, I'm a product of my place and time in history. What is important is not what to think, but how to think. The brain is an evolved organ, that while great for some tasks is hopeless at others. What's related to survival and reproduction, yes the brain is good enough. But moving away from such tasks towards unfamiliar realities, the brain needs training.

Perhaps a child could do simple mathematics, but you can't expect a child to do multivariate calculus without a significant amount of training. Likewise learning how to understand understand the universe or using reason don't just come innately, they take work. The computer in front of me tells me that the scientific method is a legitimate means of inquiry. I don't presuppose that science works, the evidence is clear!

My philosophy
This place is kelosophy - my philosophy, a place where I can sound out arguments and put out the thoughts that have been going on in my head. On some issues I've written long posts only to delete the whole thing because I felt I was stuck, while almost every post has me during the writing process deleting at least one paragraph. The arguments presented here are expressions of myself, of the way I view the world. I could be wrong, I probably am wrong on a lot of things. And in the course of my life I'll no doubt change my mind, hopefully in a wise manner. Probably not, but it sounds good.

Friday, 2 October 2009

The Wager

A random thought for today...

The more I've looked into religion, the more it boggles my mind that someone can subscribe to a particular dogma in this day and age. Fair enough I could see belief in gods, but to get into specifics? The notion sounds crazy.

Maybe a few hundred years ago there was an excuse, after all the choice that most people had was between their particular religion and nothing. Even until recently it seems possible that someone could be so isolated from the rest of the world, not having the resources to see the other religions and mythologies that litter human history.

But now? Surely dogma has become quite irrelevant. In fact, it would do nothing more than get in the way. Morality in a multicultural sense is fundamentally at odds with doctrinal prescriptive behaviour, rituals and particular beliefs seeming downright silly if not for the fact that one was brought up to believe them to be true.

There is an implicit wager when adhering to any particular doctrine. The wager is that while every other religion and supernatural belief is a product of imagination, the particular doctrine you just happened to be brought up in was the one exception to that rule. In effect, religion is the gamble that all other people are deluded while your religion and your religion alone holds divine revelation. That mystics, shamen, soothsayers, priests, those claiming divine revelation - all of those have been deluded, but those in your religion are the exception...

...when it's a choice between particular gods and nothing, theists make the choice sooooo much easier.