Saturday, 28 January 2012

Album Of The Day: Week 4

Sunday (22/01): Opeth - Blackwater Park
Monday (23/01): sleepmakeswaves - ...and so we destroyed everything
Tuesday (24/01): Cathedral - Forest Of Equilibrium
Wednesday (25/01): Porcupine Tree - Fear Of A Blank Planet
Thursday (26/01): Argus - Boldly Stride The Doomed
Friday (27/01): Black Tusk - Set The Dial
Saturday (28/01): Tool - Ænima

Thursday, 26 January 2012

My Country, Right Or Wrong

If Australian culture was really the best possible culture, then there would be no need to try to protect Australian culture - it would just be protecting good culture. Likewise, if Australian values were really good values to hold, then there would be no need to protect Australian values - it would just be protecting good values.

There's a certain irony in jingoistic behaviour, that it enshrines Australian values and reduces it to a form of tribalism. There's an even greater irony when the enforcement of this jingoism is accompanied with lip service to the notion that freedom of expression is part of the values they are protecting. That freedom, it seems, extends to everyone who will say how fucking great Australia really is.

For all the talk of foreigners taking over Australia and trying to enforce their values on us, it's not the forigners who are trying to force their culture onto others - it's the idiots draped in Australian flags complaining about the foreign incursion. The foreigners are the scapegoats for multiculturalism, for the widening of the cultural narrative to recognise that there's more than one way to live.

I challenged someone yesterday about what she meant by foreigners pushing their way of life onto us - the response was that we're not allowed to play Christmas carols in shopping centres or do Christmas in schools, have to sing "baa baa rainbow sheep" instead of "baa baa black sheep", and being called racist for displaying Australian flags. What. The. Fuck?! That's got very little to do with foreigners, it's just listing off gripes about political correctness.

That racist idiots drape themselves in the flag and proudly declare that their narrow view of culture is what we should all aspire to - or find a new residence is part of the reason why there's an association built up between flags and racism. Flag waving has that inevitable pull towards the extreme as it's the extreme that tries to own flag waving. Instead of complaining at foreigners, why not complain at all the idiots who use the flag as part of their racism?

It's not foreigners who are trying to push their way of life onto me, it's entitled Australians who are. They're the ones trying to define being Australian in such narrow terms, and wanting to push their way of life onto others.

If being Australian is about freedom of speech and freedom of expression, as those bigots say they are for, then the foreign incursion is only a problem in so far that it tries to stifle those values. And when foreigners do that, I'll stand alongside all those trying to stop such a travesty. But if those values are really Australian values, then we should rail against the bigots who do no more than pay lip service to them.

Is it that I need to say "my country, right or wrong" or seek foreign citizenship? Is Australian value merely tribalism with a veneer of enlightenment? I hope not, and I really don't think it does come down to that. They wouldn't have to fight so hard for the narrowing of the cultural narrative if the tide was turning away from such small-mindedness.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

So Much For Freedom Of Expression
India's Jaipur Literature Festival has cancelled a televised speech by Salman Rushdie minutes before it was scheduled to begin on Tuesday, amid death threats to its organiser and fears of violent protests at the event by Muslim groups.

The issue of British-Indian author Rushdie, who cancelled his visit to the festival due to assassination threats, has overshadowed the event, which is the largest literature festival in Asia.

Muslim groups protested against his invitation and other authors accused the government of suppressing free speech.

"There are a large number of people averse to this video link inside this property. They have threatened violence," Ramtap Singh, owner of the hotel in which the festival is held, told the large crowd that had assembled to listen to the author.

"This is necessary to avoid harm to all of you."

A death threat was received against Jaipur Literature Festival director William Dalrymple ahead of Rushdie's speech.

Rushdie, whose 1988 novel The Satanic Verses is banned in India, cancelled his planned visit to speak at the festival in person after reported assassination threats against him.

"All of us feel hurt and disgraced. Artists have not been able to prevail," said Sanjoy Roy, the festival's producer, holding back tears.

Political parties are seen as unwilling to lend their support to the author for fear of offending Muslim voters ahead of an important state election in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, next month.

After organisers announced earlier on Tuesday that Rushdie's address would go ahead, leaders of local Muslim groups began to congregate at the main entrance to the festival, vowing to protest if the author was allowed to address the event.

"This is a big defeat. It's a triumph for bigotry," said Tarun Tejpal, editor of Indian news magazine Tehelka.

Five authors have been investigated by police in Jaipur for reading from The Satanic Verses at the festival, and English PEN, a writer's body, issued a statement late on Monday in their support.

"We felt that it was important to show support for Salman, who is often misrepresented... This situation has arisen in India at a time when free speech is under attack," wrote Hari Kunzru, one of the authors involved, in the Guardian newspaper.
It's amazing how powerful a tool blasphemy can be. If there is a God, his objection to it seems to take the form of fanaticism amongst his followers. It's almost as if it's an excuse from God's followers to not say anything they might not like to hear...

To celebrate this bigotry, here's a Jesus and Mo:

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Album Of The Day: Week 3

Sunday (15/01): Cog - The New Normal
Monday (16/01): DOPETHRONE - Dark Foil
Tuesday (17/01): Cynic - Traced In Air
Wednesday (18/01): Paradise Lost - Draconian Times
Thursday (19/01): Tweaker - The Attraction To All Things Uncertain
Friday (20/01): Tangerine Dream - Stratosfear
Saturday (21/01): Nevermore - Dead Heart In A Dead World

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Memetic Fallacy

The fight behind climate change is very political in nature, with liberal-leaning and progressives being the main advocates of trying to fight global warming. The battle over evolution has a very religious component to it, with evolution often being advocated by atheists and creation by theists. Anti-smoking campaigns and rhetoric are nearly exclusively political now. The biggest pushers of science-based medicine are corporations whose only interest is their bottom line.

The question of whether or not climate change, or evolution, or the cancerous effects of smoking, or the efficacy of medicine are scientific questions, yet their propagation in wider culture often has very little to do with their scientific evidence. It's true that greenies and tree-huggers use climate change as a political tool to push their agenda, for example, but what does that say about the scientific validity of climate change? Very little...

Yet I have come across the argument that climate change science is an invention of leftists looking to push their political agenda. Just as I have come across that evolution is an atheist lie to deny God as the Creator, and the anti-vaccination movement is rife with claims about the science of vaccines being a Big Pharma scam. But it was a conversation with a friend about smoking that inspired me to write this post.

The notion of memes, as initially coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, is that ideas propagate in a manner akin to genes, so what survives in the realm of ideas are those that are good at being replicated. Whether or not memes are a good scientific construct is another debate, and for the purposes of this post it doesn't matter whether or not memes are a sound concept.

The memetic fallacy is a fallacy of relevance where one mistakes the reasons for its propagation as the reasons for its validity.
That climate change seems to go down a particular ideology is quite far removed from the science of it, which may lead to fabricated or exaggerated claims, but it would be a mistake to not look at where the weight of expertise lies. The propagation method may lead to embellishments or outright falsehoods, but that's not enough to dismiss the original evidence.

Likewise when it comes to evolution, the weight of expertise sits firmly on the side that it is true. That there are prominent atheists that are also evolutionary biologists or that atheists promote evolution doesn't mean that it's an idea created to undermine God and promote atheism. It might be a reason to be atheist, but that atheists promote it isn't the reason why the idea has done so well scientifically.

Perhaps like the concept of meme itself, the mistake is leaving something vital by focusing purely on its delivery. In the case of these arguments, the mistake is to leave out the content itself; that explanation of its propagation is taken as being sufficient to explain the content.

It's with good reason that we are wary of the messengers - the reputation that lawyers, advertisers, and especially politicans have received is not entirely undeserved. When there are ulterior motives, it does call into question how objective the messenger is, but is not in and of itself sufficient to dismiss the message itself as being a product of those same ulterior motives.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Bigotry Of Gay Marriage

I'm lucky enough that despite being an atheist and generally opposed to any religious attempt to control morality, my sexual preference and relationship status is one that the religious can get behind. For people like Adam Ch'ng, I can fit neatly into how he sees marriage without problem - not because I think that's the way marriage ought to be or that it's anything sacred but it just so happens to be compatible with who I am.

I am a Christian and I believe in the sanctity of marriage as cultures throughout history have understood it.
And people wonder why there's a need to be outspoken when it comes to religion. I'm not Christian, and my marriage has nothing to do with any sense of the sacred, but a legal recognition of the coexistence me and my partner share.

And I don't begrudge him his conception of marriage. If he considers marriage to be a covenant before God or some sacred ritual between a man and a woman, then he is free to do so. And no-one in this debate is asking him to give up on that. But by his fighting against the rights of homosexuals to marry, he is pushing those values on others.

For the first time, the gay rights lobby had their lightning rod who would be the public face not of their movement but of 'the other': bigoted and homophobic Christians.
Yet Adam Ch'ng put his bigotry upfront, pushing it as an affirmation of his beliefs. And that's the problem, it's bigoted and homophobic because the outcome of those beliefs does discriminate against homosexuals - and done so in religious language.

As for the content of the article itself, be sure to leave all irony meters switched off and at a safe distance. Anyone using the words "gay rights agenda" and are alluding the gay rights are Machiavellian while talking in such inflated rhetoric loses any right to complain about the charge of being bigoted.

But there's the problem, any attempt to be vocal about the validity of a right can easily be shouted down by those who have the power. Any attempt to speak out can be cast in the nastiest of manners by those wishing to perpetuate that denial of rights. What's Adam Ch'ng got to lose by supporting gay rights? Nothing, I contend. But if supporters of gay rights don't speak up, they continue to be treated as lesser citizens. And Adam Ch'ng is perpetuating that bigotry, whether or not he sees himself as a bigot for doing so.

I am very lucky, because the kind of relationship I want to be in is one that is societally the norm. I don't have to worry about feelings of being broken, of being told I'm a sinner leading a deviant lifestyle, I don't have to worry about being verbally or physically abused because of what comes fairly naturally to me, nor do I ever have to worry about my rights being taken away or to be denied the rights that others have. If the worst that Adam Ch'ng has to go through is that he's called a bigoted homophobic Christian while enshrining and perpetuating discrimination against those who deviate from the norm, then he's very lucky too.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Album Of The Day: Week 2

Sunday (08/01): Discipline. - To Shatter All Accord
Monday (09/01): Kylesa - Static Tensions
Tuesday (10/01): Alcest - Écailles de Lune
Wednesday (11/01): Bad Religion - The Empire Strikes First
Thursday (12/01): At The Drive-In - In/Casino/Out
Friday (13/01): Regurgitator - Unit
Saturday (14/01): Orchid - Capricorn

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Of Atheism And Antitheism

Being an atheist doesn't necessarily mean being opposed to religion. Even if someone doesn't believe in God, they could have nothing but glowing praise for what people do with that God belief. Likewise, being antitheist doesn't necessarily involve being an atheist, and there are things done in the name of God that could (and really should) draw ire from even the most fervent of believers.

I bring this up because the distinction matters, even if positions are often tightly coupled. It might seem obvious to point out, but it's something that should be said often. For example, take the wrongness of homosexuality. If someone claims that "God hates fags" and seeks to persecute gays, their position isn't justified if they can make a reasonable case for God.

To break this down:
  1. If God exists, then God hates fags.
  2. God exists.

  3. Therefore, God hates fags.

Yet how do we know that God hates fags? The claim may be justified in the bible:
  1. The bible is the inerrant word of God
  2. The bible claims that God hates fags

  3. Therefore, God hates fags

But what about the inerrant word of God? Perhaps a justification of the divine knowledge:
  1. If the bible contains a proof of divine truth, it must be the inerrant word of God
  2. The bible has moral teachings that are testament to the divine

  3. Therefore, the bible is the inerrant word of God

And so on... It doesn't matter for the purpose of illustration if this is how "God hates fags" is justified; the point of the exercise is to show that the argument doesn't hinge on the truth of theism. The same regression could be taken with God and perhaps show a contradiction between the kind of God that can be shown to exist and the statement against homosexuality (that an all-loving God is incompatible with hate, for example), but again the exercise shifts away from atheism and into theology.

The intelligent design public controversy highlighted this. While intelligent design can be opposed on several angles (conceptual grounds, scientific grounds, church/state separation, etc.), the cell biologist Ken Miller additionally opposed it on religious grounds - that intelligent design painted the picture of an incompetent designer. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made a similar condemnation of theistic evolution, claiming that would imply God didn't do a good job in setting up the universe.

These are criticisms that, as an atheist, even if I could think of them I couldn't use. Yet they are important criticisms, whether or not the claims made are internally consistent or are able to be justified don't necessarily depend on whether or not the atheistic claim is true. As far as I'm concerned, Intelligent Design is not science, just a political tool masquerading as science. But as far as whether or not believers in God should accept it, voices like Ken Miller offer an interesting perspective. Is intelligent design justified if God is taken into account?

I'm glad that there are the Ken Millers of the world, it means I don't have to waste my time being learned on such trivial (to me) questions. During the Dover trial, opponents of the plan to try to push Intelligent Design into schools were branded as "atheists" including the Catholic Ken Miller and local church members. But who was really being the bad theists in this matter? Perhaps neither had justification, perhaps both had some. But it's not my fight, again the argument is going into theology.

Antitheism has a hostile ring to it, that it sounds like it suggests that religion is the great evil of the world from which no good can come, and religion's very existence is an affront to everything we consider human. But to be less sensational, antitheism is for the majority centred on specific issues. It would be hard to deny the religious incursion in the evolution debate, or the debate about rights for homosexuals, but neither of these issues rest on whether God exists.

I think at times the theologial issues can be a distraction. When the empirical evidence overwhelmingly supports an old earth and the evolution of life, what does it matter how people interpret Genesis? For questions of morality, it needs the prior belief in a God-given morality for the theology to be meaningful. Yet these aren't meaningless questions for many people, even if they are to atheists.

I can understand why people would wish atheists to stay out of these discussions, or if they do enter that they would respect the discipline of theology. But as much as one can understand that theology may be an integral part of someone's reasoning, that might not be the relevant part. Take a chain of reasoning about homosexuality:
IF God exists AND God is the Christian God AND morality is found in God's commands AND The Bible is the ultimate source of God's dictation on moralty AND The bible condemns homosexuality THEN Homosexuality is wrong
Even with this simplified chain, there's a range of claims that could be contested at various levels. For an atheist, beyond the first few claims listed it doesn't matter. But for theists of various stripes, there are other conversations to be had - each part of the reasoning has its potential to be wrong even when they are not the concern of atheists.

I was trying to built to some sort of point - that religious criticism doesn't have to hinge around atheism, and the temptation to attack religious arguments with God's existence as the weak point may not always be the best or most appropriate response. Because even if the God that people espouse exists, that's no guarantee their position is defensible.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Album Of The Day: Week 1

Sunday (01/01): Amebix - Sonic Mass
Monday (02/01): Chaos Divine - The Human Connection
Tuesday (03/01): Scale The Summit - The Collective
Wednesday (04/01): Sorgeldom - ...From Outer Intelligences
Thursday (05/01): Death - Human
Friday (06/01): Josh Freese - Since 1972
Saturday (07/01): Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning

2012: A Music Challenge

A week ago, my facebook feed had someone explaining they tried to listen to a different album every day in 2011. While they didn't manage to get 365 different albums, they did listen to over 200!

I listen to music daily, though I tend to obsess over some music and will listen to the same few albums over and over until I can't remember what it was that I liked about them in the first place. So I thought that this might be a good challenge for me, to try something different every day and look through the more neglected parts of my music collection.

My goal is to listen to at least one album each day that I haven't listened to this year. It's been fairly easy to do for 7 days, hopefully I can keep this up for the next 359.

The Offside Rule... In Coin Form

A coin that explains the offside rule in football produced to commemorate the London Olympic Games has sparked criticism for getting the offside rule wrong. Except it doesn't. Reading the referee criticism, they've made an elaborate technical point about a rule change made in 1995 and that the coin would be misleading. The only problem is that the coin doesn't say that at all. Take a look for yourselves.

Nowhere on this coin does it suggest passing to either player would make it offside. Indeed, I think the most reasonable interpretation is that it's saying that if you passed to one player it would be offside while passing to the other player wouldn't be.

In other words, the coin got it right! To quote the designer of the coin:
With all due respect, I reject Mal Davies's interpretation of the coin (rather than his interpretation of the offside law). Nowhere on the coin does it say that the 'offside' player is committing an offence – that is a supposition entirely of Mal's creation.

The coin simply states that the player is 'offside' – which is true, irrespective of whether or not an 'offside offence' results from this scenario. Furthermore, there are clearly space limitations on the coinface so it was obviously impossible to go into the finer details of the offside rule.

I think this incident highlights an important point. If you're going to mouth off about something, it's first a good thing to check that it's not you who has misinterpreted the information at hand. A simple rule of thumb to follow is that if there's a charitable and uncharitable way of interpreting what was said, it's probably best to give the benefit of the doubt and take the charitable option.

Friday, 6 January 2012


"You don't learn much from someone who already agrees with you." - John Shook

Monday, 2 January 2012

Why False Beliefs Should Be Fought
Police in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh say they have arrested two people who are suspected of sacrificing a child.

A seven-year-old girl was kidnapped and found murdered in a lawless tribal district two months ago.

An initial investigation suggested she was offered as a sacrifice in order to produce a better harvest.

Police say they are looking for more people who may be involved in the killing of the girl.
If child sacrifice really worked to help the harvest, or made sure the sun rise the next day, then we'd be faced with a serious moral quandary. But when it's clearly not the case, then that concern disappears and the horror of the act stems from its pointlessness. Who would think child sacrifice is anything other than monstrous unless it was necessary? When it's a matter of life and death, perhaps the act should be forgiven. But to those who can know better, they should be held to a higher standard.

A child who dies because their parents believe in the power of faith healing or in the curing powers of homoeopathy are preventable deaths. Likewise, when vaccine-preventable outbreaks occur, the blame lies squarely at the hands of those who pushed paranoia and dismissal regarding the efficacy of vaccines. It's not that we're in a state of not-knowing either way, but that we know that vaccines work while homoeopathy and faith healing do not.

The lesson isn't that these cases are typical of the action, in most circumstances taking homoeopathy is benign and sometimes even mildly beneficial. Or not getting vaccinated in areas where there's little chance of catching the disease (or there's herd immunity) mean that the decision not to vaccinate isn't going to have such harm. People, from their perspective, aren't seeing the harm that's being said these beliefs cause. The lesson is that these are what the false beliefs can cause, that "what's the harm" isn't for any particular individual but the broader consequences.

And therein lies the fractured nature of the personal choice defence. The harm of any individual believing in the healing powers of homoeopathy is going to be quite low, but the broad application of a belief is going to matter in severe cases. One might argue that any individual has a right to believe in whatever they want including to the point of self-harm; that if someone wants to treat an infection with honey or treat their cervical cancer with new-age woo, that's their funeral. But beliefs are not limited to the individual, nor do the effects of that belief stay with the individual.

Yes, anyone can believe in what they want. But the beliefs themselves are still going to be subject to criticism, and if the beliefs are known false beliefs, then those who propagate them should be countered. The anti-vaccination group, The Australian Vaccination Network are pushing misinformation that is at the expense of herd immunity and people are going to suffer because of it; all because they have a false belief about vaccines. It's not personal choice for those infants who are now contracting measles; it's a direct consequence of those individuals acting on a false belief.

Back to the tragic story in India, which seems so far removed from our petty squabbles over beliefs in an affluent and pluralistic liberal democracy. Those villagers may not have been in a position to have known better; their false belief perhaps passed down from tradition, or apparent divine revelation, or even a false pattern based on an inductive inference that it "worked" sometime in the past. Whatever the case, living in a remote part of India is far removed from the instance access to information we have the privilege of accessing. We have expertise devoted to researching such questions, and benefits from the countless hours put into trying to understand what works and what doesn't.

I don't particularly care what people believe, for the most part. Quite a lot of it strikes me as absurd. Yesterday, for example, I was having a conversation with a friend about a "lecture" put on by an "animal psychic". I just couldn't help but to laugh at the absurdity of an animal psychic, let alone that the local animal liberation society would even want to associate with such a speaker, let alone kick out my friend over him turning up to cause trouble at the lecture (which was to ask questions, such as whether the animal psychic could also talk to plants). If someone wants to believe that they can psychically communicate with animals, all the best to them. But the beliefs shouldn't be exempt from criticism because someone holds it to be true, and I care to the extent in which those beliefs can cause harm for others.

Despite my continual rantings on the issue, I don't actually care whether or not people believe in God. What I care about is the extent to which God belief silences free inquiry, freedom of choice, and is used to demonise others, or used as a justification for atrocities. To that extent I think there should be vocal criticism, not just coming from the non-religious either, but from every reasonable person out there. These aren't atheist issues, they are issues of basic human dignity, and unlike the little girl who met her abhorred end in rural India, we can and ought to do better. We know better - a statement not of Western imperialism dominating rival and equally valid modalities of culture, but a hard-fought triumph of reasoned critical inquiry.