Monday, 27 February 2012

A Respectful Dialogue

Since I didn't take notes, here's a few recollections about the discussion.

  • This format is a great way to have a dialogue. Instead of having two people getting the platform to try to rhetorically out-compete the other, they had three people trying to express themselves in a way that was amenable to conversation and understanding by the wider audience.

  • I don't think it would be possible to have a more civilised exchange than this. For all the talk about the tone Dawkins brings to the table, there was nothing there to lower the tone of the conversation.

  • The question the audience had about "unrealised potentiality" reeked of attempting to sound profound, and all it ended up doing was needing clarification - and even then it was the waste of a question.

  • Dawkins was really out of his depth when talking about notions like free will and consciousness being "illusions". It was good to see Williams and Kenny told Dawkins to task for his sloppy use of terminology.

  • It was good to see the Archbishop not shy away from serious questions that were problematic to his belief, and that he willingly admitted faith on his part when asked about certain aspects of his belief.

  • That said, when Dawkins pressed him on why bother to read Genesis at all, Williams failed to give a satisfactory answer.

  • When Kenny asked why Dawkins wasn't an agnostic and Dawkins replied that he was, it wasn't any different to the position Dawkins laid out in The God Delusion.

  • Kenny's explanation of the differences in complexity was refreshing, but it doesn't really resolve the problem. The cut-throat razor may have more functionality than an electric razor despite being a more simple design, but there's only so much structural complexity you can lose without losing the complex function. We might be able to be more simple than we are and keep our capacities, but how much could we really lose in terms of complexity before we cannot have something like language or conscious thought?

  • The jab at the blogosphere at the end was a bit snobbish, more than anything else, and probably could have been done in a more constructive manner.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

The case of the West Memphis 3 was something that I've only briefly read about, something that I knew of through reading up on Pearl Jam, and friends occasionally talking about it. The film, like the two before it apparently, makes the compelling case that the 3 were innocent - with lawyers, forensic experts, and even the stepfather of one of the victims there to help. It would be hard to walk away and not think that it was anything other than a gross miscarriage of justice. Of course, the police who investigated it, the state of Arkansas, and the stepfather of another of the murdered children see it otherwise.

That's the interesting thing looking at this case in documentary form. We, as the viewer, are hearing a selected part of the story, and how accurate that is can only really be gotten by looking into it further. For one thing, I admire the courage of the original filmmakers. These were three people accused of killing children - possibly the worst crime to be accused of - and yet there were people willing to stand up and fight for these three people in the face of an incredibly emotional and hostile situation. I can only imagine what the parents must have felt about a bunch of outsiders trying to free who they saw as evildoers.

What really shocked me, though, was the court testimony of an expert on the occult. A man who had a mail order Ph.D and had done no real study, yet the judge let him stand as an expert witness? I burst out laughing at that point, which again is easy looking back after the whole satanic cult scare had been an evangelical fantasy. But here was a man with no qualification other than the belief that he has found a pattern, and the judge thought it okay to include him as an expert witness because he'd been finding that pattern for years?

And that, to me, is the whole problem with the situation. The children would have never even been considered if it weren't for the satanic cult sacrifice element. Now not only have three people spent half their lives in prison because of that false pattern, they are forever tarnished with the question of whether or not they actually did it. The moral panic around satanic cults, that false positive identification of a pattern, and now three people have lost nearly 20 years of their lives because of it.

With the story about the injustice surrounding the West Memphis three, it's easy to forget that why they are imprisoned was because of another injustice - that three young boys being murdered. The documentary ends with the stepfather of one of the children outraged at Arkansas doing a plea bargain with the accused that would make the whole thing go away because the real killer(s) was still out there and the state had no interest in pursuing the case further - unless new evidence were to come to light.

As far as I can tell, an attempt to rectify one grave injustice, one fuelled by moral panic, has led to another. When I see people tip into "bleeding heart liberals" who just want to "identify with the criminals" (or some variant thereof), this is why I think they've missed the point. Establishing guilt, establishing intent - these are flawed endeavours even in the best of all possible circumstances. None of us "dirty liberals" wants child killers walking around, nor are we looking to diminish the tragedy of what the victims went through. But it's as much an injustice to take that injustice and go on a witch-hunt. For what justice can there be found in failing to get it right?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

For Science! A Review Of Project Nim

What could be learned about insights into humanity from studying other animals? Perhaps the biggest thing is that it teaches us that most of what we consider human behaviour is more quantitatively distinct rather than qualitative. In terms of specifically human traits, the problem is hindered by there being about 6,000,000 years between us and our nearest living relative. How much insight can we gain from studying chimpanzees for questions like language abilities?

The documentary, for better or worse, doesn't really focus on this question. Indeed, given the scientific nature of the endeavour it hardly mentioned any science at all. This was a story about a chimpanzee and the people who were a part of that story, and the science mattered in so much as it was part of that tale. Just how much was Nim Chimpsky able to communicate? It wasn't really addressed beyond a few superficial mentions.

This criticism isn't meant to say the documentary was bad, or even lacking, just that the science wasn't really the focus. The story is very compelling, and it's very well put together. It was a good choice to use people involved to narrate the story; that combined with stock-footage made for a very powerful story.

Running through my head were the words "for science!" When Nim's mother was shot with a tranquilliser so that they could take Nim away - for science! When they tried to teach him sign language - for science! When they shoved Nim in a small lifeless room at a university to measure his progress - for science! When he was taken back to the compound where he was born and put into a cage - for science! When he was sold to a medical testing facility - for science!

By the end of the film, all I could think was that it's not worth it. Whatever lessons could be learned from chimpanzees seemed to come at the cost of the chimpanzee's personhood. They differed from humans enough that treating them as humans made no sense, but at the same time displayed enough human-like traits that to lock them in a cage or isolate them seemed one of the most horrible things that could be done. Even the altruistic people at the end who bought Nim from the medical testing laboratory sought fit to put Nim in isolation, including from the handler whom Nim was very close to.

The whole thing seemed very undignified looking back now. Shoving a 2-week old chimpanzee into a human house with people who had no experience with chimpanzees (and even gave the young chimpanzee marijuana) then to try to make somewhat of an objective go at teaching it sign language, then when things started going bad just dumping it back in a caged facility.

Perhaps the whole thing is a damning of the scientific process - that in the quest to understand they've caused harm to the very thing they were meant to be studying. At the end, we've got a grey area between person and animal, where we as viewers are brought to empathise with something that's so close to that line between anthropomorphising and what's there. The lesson I've taken away from the film is that if we are going to research on chimpanzees, there's a great gap between what happened here and what the qualities of chimpanzees warrant.

Album Of The Day: Week 8

Sunday (19/02): The Ocean - Precambrian
Monday (20/02): Earthship - Exit Eden
Tuesday (21/02): Red Fang - Red Fang
Wednesday (22/02): The Atlas Moth - An Ache For The Distance
Thursday (23/02): Riverside - Anno Domini High Definition
Friday (24/02): Deafheaven - Roads To Judah
Saturday (25/02): Noctis - Silent Atonement

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Thus Spake Zarathustra

"[O]nce upon a time, did I also cast my fancy beyond man, like all backworldsmen. Beyond man, forsooth?
Ah, yet brethren, that God whom I created was human work and human madness, like all the Gods!
A man was he, and only a poor fragment of a man and ego. Out of mine own ashes and glow it came unto me, that phantom. And verily, it came not unto me from the beyond!" - Friedrich Nietzsche

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Thus Spake Zarathustra

"I conjure you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not." - Friedrich Nietzsche

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Album Of The Day: Week 7

Sunday (12/02): Psycroptic - The Inherited Repression
Monday (13/02): Abraham - An Eye On The Universe
Tuesday (14/02): Pavement - Slanted & Enchanted
Wednesday (15/02): Kent - En Plats I Solen
Thursday (16/02): Stielas Storhett - Expulse
Friday (17/02): Air - Le Voyage Dans La Lune
Saturday (18/02): Tenhi - Saivo

Friday, 17 February 2012

You Should Expect It!
Interesting logic, let's explore this:

If you buy expensive things, what can you expect but to have them stolen? When we live in a society that places different value on goods and divides haves from have-nots, is anyone surprised that robbery takes place?

And theft adds unnecessary cost to the taxpayer. It means we've got police chasing after people who take these material possessions, instead of doing their job of helping to prevent and punish real crime like rape* or murder. We've got court systems and all those associated costs in prosecuting the criminals - meanwhile these criminals are treated as "defendants" and have hired protection that seeks to get in the way of justice. We've got prisons to run, and paroles to guard. And all this is documented too, all this overhead regulation of unnecessary expense that wouldn't be there if people just learnt to not buy valuable things.

Our tax dollars and precious man hours are being wasted on something which is unnecessary. People don't need their stuff protected, if they didn't want it stolen then they shouldn't have been in possession of valuable things to begin with. You can't be both materialistic and the victim.

* unless you are in the military, or you dress too sexy.

Birth Control vs Religious Liberty
Religious leaders from multiple faiths have united in an unprecedented show of strength against US president Barack Obama's healthcare plan to ensure all women have access to birth control.

Roman Catholic Bishop William Lori likened the situation, of the government forcing church-affiliated groups to provide insurance cover for birth control, to forcing a kosher deli to serve ham sandwiches.

"It is absurd for someone to come into a kosher deli and demand a ham sandwich, but it is beyond absurd for that private demand to be backed up with a coercive power of the state, and downright surreal to apply that coercive power when the government can get that same sandwich cheaply or even free just a few doors down," he said.
A number of years ago I heard a report about a small town in Australia that had the highest birthrate in Australia. The only pharmacist in the town had refused to stock and supply birth control on religious grounds.

His place in the community was not just a matter of religious freedom, however. By deciding that he couldn't sell contraception on his religious grounds, he made that choice on behalf of everyone. After all, why should people need contraception? The pharmacist was Catholic!

And this is the problem with this analogy of religious freedom. Healthcare is not a religious service. Any individual is free to avoid using and buying birth control if they choose to on religious grounds, but being a healthcare provider while refusing to stock health supplies is pushing those religious grounds onto others that they may or may not want.

In short, if you want to be a health provider, then it's not a matter of religious choice. If religion cannot provide a public service in a manner that best serves the public, then they shouldn't be in that business. They as individuals are free to ignore any contraceptives that may be on offer, what they are losing here is the ability to deny that service to others.

Baptist leader Professor Ben Mitchell said his church members would be prepared to defend their religious freedom.

"Tens of thousands of us, maybe hundreds of thousands of us, would be very willing to spend nights in jail for the sake of the preservation of religious liberty," he said.

"It's not just our coffers that are at risk, it is our very freedom."
What's at risk is the ability to easily push one's religious belief onto others. That's a very Orwellian take on religious freedom.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Thought Of The Day

"What about the artist?" goes out the window the moment people start sourcing entertainment online. Then it becomes "what about the storefront?" and sales for the artist don't seem to matter anymore.

It's not the artists we support when we buy entertainment, it's the multiple industries between the artist and us. Our purchases are more about keeping those industries afloat than they are supporting the artist, yet it's that desire for supporting the artist that is exploited.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Thought Of The Day

Self-authenticating private evidence is useless, because it is indistinguishable from the illusion of it.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Thought Of The Day

Proselytism would be redundant if the inner witness to the holy spirit was really as powerful as some believers credit it. If the holy spirit can show the truth of Christianity and can do so more powerfully than any philosophical, scientific, or historical evidence, then why do anything else? Proselytism would just taint the evidence as the testimony would be indistinguishable from cultural transmission.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Thought Of The Day

No-one online complains about the epistemic viability of methodological naturalism until after they turn their computer on.

Album Of The Day: Week 6

Sunday (05/02): Fen - Epoch
Monday (06/02): Mindsnare - Disturb The Hive
Tuesday (07/02): Sophie Madeleine - The Rhythm You Started
Wednesday (08/02): Pig Destroyer - Phantom Limb
Thursday (09/02): Torche - Meanderthal
Friday (10/02): The Bronx - The Bronx (I)
Saturday (11/02): Meshuggah - obZen

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Album Of The Day: Week 5

Sunday (29/01): Killing Joke - Pandemonium
Monday (30/01): Helmet - Meantime
Tuesday (31/01): Death From Above 1979 - You're A Woman, I'm A Machine
Wednesday (01/02): Gorgoroth - Antichrist
Thursday (02/02): Mogwai - Happy Songs For Happy People
Friday (03/02): Genghis Tron - Dead Mountain Mouth
Saturday (04/02): Alchemist - Spiritech