## Main Blog Page

All recent posts are listed here in reverse chronological order. For a more focused view you can use the "Blog Topics" listing on the right - and the little icons on the right of the topic names toggle display of subtopics (if any).

## Is My Harris Prize Slipping Away?

March 8th, 2014

Oh dear!
Both the number of people who share my view (and arguably express it better than me), and my inability to quickly convince everyone else, in the long discussion thread on this post at Ophelia Benson's blog makes me fear that Russell Blackford too might miss the uniquely devastating brilliance of my demolition of Sam Harris' thesis (for which the most successful argument as judged by Blackford will earn $2000 - and$20000 more if Harris himself concedes the point)
...more »

## The Solution To Climate Change?

March 2nd, 2014

ThinkProgress asking Is The Solution To Climate Change In Vancouver? is for me a sad reminder of how the political party that I supported totally misused my contributions. Thanks a bunch BillT and CarolJ

## Lost and Found

February 23rd, 2014

In a post On Returning the Lost | Talking Philosophy, philosopher Mike LaBossiere raises the question as to whether his habit of returning found wallets without removing the money is abnormal.

I should hope not! but in fact one commenter confessed to the opposite practice (which I'm afraid drew me in to a rather heated exchange - prompted in particular by his self-serving presumption about the relative wealth of the wallet's owner).

In any case, the question of actual statistics is interesting, and another commenter referred to experiments in which wallets have been deliberately "lost", so I thought it might be worth reporting on another such experiment study.

We only have about half a dozen sample points so far, but my wife seems intent on running a long term observational study of this matter and in Vancouver BC has had 100% return of the wallet, 50% with cash included and 50% cash removed (including one case where the wallet returned for reward had been in a dropped bike pannier with other items which were never recovered).

Although the financial benefit of getting the money back is usually quite small (at least in relation to other matters) the sense of faith in one's fellow humans that results from such an event is quite wonderful - and I am pretty sure that benefits of that sort continue to multiply.

## Robert Reich Nails It

February 20th, 2014

In a post about the recent WhatsApp sale, Robert Reich points out what was obvious to everyone when I was a teenager (more than half a century ago!) - namely that the needs of billions can be provided for by hundreds and so that if it weren't for the massive arrogation of communal goods by a greedy few we would all have been living lives of relative comfort and minimal required work well before the end of the last millennium.

## Reflections of a Catholic Scientist

February 9th, 2014

Robert Kurland who self-describes as a "Retired, cranky, old physicist.Convert to Catholicism in 1995."responded to a comment I made on an earlier post about his path to religion.

My comment on his latest post was as follows:

Thanks Bob for responding -and for helping me in my (still ongoing) effort to gain a better understanding of the nature of your belief. I hope you don't mind my repeating some of what I said already in our email correspondence (partly to explain the context, and partly to gain further clarification from you).

One thing I mentioned in our email exchange was that my own understanding of the word "counterfactual" is that it refers to a hypothesis that we know is false (eg that Mount Baker had a massive eruption in 2012) rather than one which we may think unlikely but about which we do not yet have any confirmed facts (eg a story based on the hypothesis that the now very mildly active Mount Baker will have a massive eruption in 2024 - which I would only consider counterfactual if it were the case right now that Baker had been stone cold dormant for long enough for geologists to be almost certain that such an eruption in 2024 is not possible). The only reason I repeat this quibble is because if we are using words the same way, then your use of "counterfactual" tells me something about the strength of your belief - ie that you are essentially certain that no evidence against the resurrection could ever be found which would be able to alter the strength of your belief. Indeed this is one way that I could interpret your conclusion that "I take Alan's proposition as a counterfactual--conceivable in an alternative (hypothetical) universe, but not possible in ours" - except for the doubt remaining in my mind as to whether it is my hypothetical *premises* which could never be conceivable to you in our universe or just your proposed *conclusion* (which I never actually claimed to follow from the premises - though I certainly meant to imply that they would increase its credibility).

This brings me to a second comment re this post - just that I would like to emphasize again that I wasn't proposing the hypothetical future evidence as necessarily proving the "Conclusion: Jesus was not resurrected." but rather just that it if such evidence did transpire then it might serve to weaken the strength of your evidence-based conviction that he was.

I certainly appreciate the sentiment of your final paragraph, and in fact I have often thought that we should draw a distinction between belief and faith. Is it possible to have faith in the resurrection of Jesus as a redeeming concept with which humanity has been blessed, rather than as an actual historical event which we believe really happened? If so, then it may also be possible to retain that faith while believing that the actual physical event did not ever really happen. If so (and if it were widely advertised to be so) then there would be at least two positive consequences - more people could share in the blessings of faith, and fewer people would feel the need to feel that the use of reason would pose a threat to their receipt of those blessings.

## The Meaning of Good and Evil

January 26th, 2014

AGW denier and generally right wing oriented contrarian Matt Briggs thinks atheists have a "problem" with evil[1], but I agree with commenter lucia’s first sentence:

Matt, Your very first claim is nonesense: "Evil is a problem for atheists because, for them, it does not exist absolutely”

Lucia bases this response on the claim to be an atheist who does have a definition of absolute evil, but my reasons are different from (in fact in a sense opposite to) lucia’s.

I don’t know if I qualify as an atheist, but for me good and evil do not exist absolutely – and for me that is not a problem.

So far as I have ever been able to tell, “good” and “evil” are just words used by people to label certain behaviours that they feel compelled to encourage or (resp.) discourage (usually on the basis of effects of such behaviours on the perceived welfare of the family, tribe, or super-tribe, rather than on the immediate well-being of the individual); and they tend to have the desired effect by virtue of being connected to approval and shaming since infancy in a brain which evolved over many generations to manage the behaviour of a social animal so as to be successful in its context by responding to approval and shaming signals from its peers.

Certainly Briggs' demand for a definition was odd since the obligation to define a word must surely fall on the one who uses it. But on further reflection I am tempted to actually use and define the word "evil" as something distinct from merely "bad". Because, for all the risk of harm he brings to the world with his denialism, I would be inclined to say Briggs, though maybe "bad", is not "evil" . And the reason I deny him that label is because I don't suspect any real wish to hurt others in his vainly posturing behaviour of picking holes on the arguments of AGW advocates and left-liberal politicos rather than seriously considering the overall picture.  So I suppose that it is malicious intent - or any other kind of deliberate overriding of the dictates of conscience - that underlies my own conception of evil (something like what the religious might describe as knowingly making a pact with the devil).

So it seems that for me the distinction between "bad" and "evil" is a matter of intent. But, as usual with words, there is a shading of meaning. We might consider a person who cannibalizes children to be evil even if he was a psychopath without conscience (though perhaps less so if we knew he was delusional). I think though that the reason for this is more out of inability to imagine the truly psychopathic state than out of really extending the definition. (After all we probably wouldn't use the word evil if the psychopath were replaced by a baby-eating lion).

So perhaps I do have an absolute definition of "evil" as deliberate action contrary to the dictates of conscience - even though it is one I cannot ever truly test with regard to another person because I don't have access to their internal mental processes. Despite that untestability, the evilness of any particular act is either true or false independent of the observer (though not the actor). But then being evil is not a property of the act itself but rather of its relation to the conscience (or perhaps to a religious the "soul") of the actor. So even though the definition of evil is absolute, the evilness of a particular action is relative.

Of course, if I am going to suggest that Briggs, though probably not evil, is maybe "bad" then I guess I do need to say what I would mean by that as well.

Even though I do use those words I do not have an absolute definition of “good” and “bad”, but as I said before, for me that is still not a problem.

When I say some action is “bad” or “wrong” I am merely expressing my own feelings and I do not believe that anyone else’s such assertions have any more absolute (ie observer-independent) content than my own.

This does not mean that discussions of ethics (and aesthetics) are pointless, but logical argument may play only a small part in them. How we feel about things influences our behaviour and my own sense of ethics does not rule out trying to persuade others to change their ethical and aesthetic positions. Since the object of such arguments is more to change feelings than opinions I have no objection to the use of appeal to emotions in such arguments. (The only problem is that if it’s so blatant that the manipulative intent becomes clear then it might not be effective.)

Note:[1]  Really this wouldn’t have been be a bad post if Briggs could only suppress his tendency to throw in egregious straw men at every opportunity. It’s especially discouraging when he raises a topic about which there might be some interesting things to say which get smothered and lost in the overwhelming mass of “cleverly” inserted straw.

## Planet Hillary! How @AremDuplessis Fucked It Up

January 23rd, 2014

The original was so much better than what he forced onto the NYT Magazine's Crazy Cover.

## Syria peace talks: live - Telegraph

January 22nd, 2014

This leaves me with more sympathy than I expected to have for the Syrian gov't position - specifically with regard to the need for the terms to explicitly disavow terrorist Wahabi elements in the opposition. And I am also puzzled by the exclusion of Iran when Saudis are included. Ban Ki-Moon's weird invitation certainly looked inept though - but perhaps he was playing at a different level from what appeared on the surface.(But from this account I would have to say that the Americans fucked it up - deliberately)

P.S. The live breaking news format is engaging but in this context I don't like reverse chronological order and would prefer to see chronological order with latest displayed and a scroll-back option.

## FIVE BOOKS TO ARGUE WITH

January 9th, 2014

Kenan Malik starts the year with a preview of FIVE BOOKS TO ARGUE WITH.

The best kind of book, to my mind, is the kind of book you can have an argument with. Not a book so wrong that I want to throw it across the room, but one that I disagree with and yet find challenging enough to force me to re-examine my own views, and often to put down my disagreements in writing to help me better to clarify them.

For me, not being much of a historian, the first, fourth, and last on Malik's list look most interesting.

He starts with Joshua Greene's 'Moral Tribes:Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them' which ties in nicely with my own interest in how we can control the dangerous effects of our tendency to form aggressively competing identity groups.
This ties in with his own forthcoming book 'The Quest for a Moral Compass' parts of which apparently come from a talk on ‘Science, morality and the Euthyphro dilemma’; a review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape; and a critique of Alex Rosenberg’s moral nihilism.

Roger Scruton's 'The Soul of the World',according to the blurb as excerpted by Malik, " ‘defends the experience of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism’. For Scruton, ‘To be fully alive – and to understand what we are – is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things’. The book is not ‘an argument for the existence of God, or a defense of the truth of religion’ but ‘an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life – and what the final loss of the sacred would mean' "
I will be curious to see how Scruton sees 'today’s fashionable forms of atheism' as necessarily threatening that basic 'sense of the sacred' - and also to see how Malik responds.

The last book on Malik's list, Nicholas Wade's 'A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History' may well be a dangerous and unnecessary exploration, but just because a concept can be misused doesn't mean it has no meaning, and despite Malik's reasonably thoughtful but ultimately disappointing effort at fence-sitting I don't think (as I have previously noted here, here, and here) that we can realistically deny the possibility of defining "race" (in various ways) as a possibly useful scientific concept. Whether we should make use of it is another matter and I remain nervous about where Wade may want to go.

Re Malik on the fence:

It is always a bad sign when people throw around expressions like "85% of variation" without saying what they mean and Malik's failure to understand the Leewontin Fallacy had to be pointed out to him in the comments by Lou Jost.

I am also inclined to expect nonsense when I read an unsupported bald pedantic claim that starts with "Any scientific classification must.." and was confirmed in that expectation by Malik's insistence on "a classification system must be complete and able to absorb even those entities not yet identified." But even if there were such a well-defined concept of "scientific classification" there are lots of scientific concepts which are not "classifications" in that sense (and any plausible concept of race is almost certainly one of them).

Finally, in his criticism of a 2003 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that made the case for ‘The importance of race and ethnic background in biomedical research and clinical practice’, he makes much of the use of standard biomedical terminology on one side versus "looseness of the language" on the other. I don't intend to check whether these authors actually provided explicit procedures for how they identified people with "racial" labels (although they certainly could and should have!), because I am more interested (here) in what is possible than what happened in this particular case. But even if it was just self-identification into clearly defined categories, if that self-identification correlates with a choice of optimal treatment that cannot be cost-effectively determined any other way then it is indeed both scientifically and practically meaningful.

## Republicans Don't Believe In Evolution Anymore

January 1st, 2014

The Atlantic asks and ThinkProgress answers Why (according to a recent Pew Research Insyitute poll) Republicans Don't Believe In Evolution Anymore.

But I am more interested in what this means for the future.

## Kin vs Group Selection in S4A

December 19th, 2013

This article, like most of Le Nguyen Hoang's work, brings together a wonderful mix of ideas and resources and is mostly great. But I am a bit worried that it might leave some readers with the idea that kin selection and group selection are mutually exclusive alternatives when in fact I doubt that anyone in the "group selection" camp denies the importance of kin selection.

The "war" is I think between those who propose methods of group selection that are not explained by kinship and those who insist that everything can be explained by a concept of "inclusive fitness" defined in terms of kinship defined *only* by the family tree (and who also insist that nothing else can possibly happen).

With regard to what will eventually disappear, I don't think there's any chance that kin selection will disappear since everyone can see that it sometimes works. As for non-kin-based group selection, I can see ways it could work; and so, given the infinite inventiveness of nature, I am sure we will eventually identify examples where the pure-kin explanation does not suffice. So I like the article's concluding reference to Max Plank. What will eventually disappear are those who are stuck on a currently favourite theory (only to be temporarily replaced of course by those who get stuck on the next one).
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## The Sunsets Are Already Getting Later!

December 16th, 2013

To a late riser like me it seems that the days are already getting longer even though is is still almost a week before the actual winter solstice. But this is not an illusion as the sunsets really are starting to happen later here, even as the length of time from sunrise to sunset continues to shorten.

How can this be? Well, the sunrises are actually also getting later too because in addition to getting longer and shorter the days actually "move around" a bit (in the sense that the time that a regular clock gives as noon even on the exact meridean of a time zone is not exactly the time when the sun is highest in the sky). This is due to a fairly subtle effect of the earth's tilt combined with a slightly smaller effect of its orbital eccentricity (the fact that it is an ellipse rather than a perfect circle). These effects cause the length of the entire (noon to noon) day to vary with the seasons so that the clock's equal 24-hour days cannot all be exactly centred on solar high points (so noon on  a sundial moves back and forth relative to noon on a clock). Popular accounts of this phenomenon frequently relate it only to the eccentricity which actually gives the smaller effect , but this article in The Atlantic is closer to the mark in that it gets the sizes of the two effects right. (It does however give a wrong impression of how the obliquity effect works though, because it implies that it's like the difference between summer and winter when in fact it is between solstices and equinoxes. At both solstices the noon to noon time is about 20 seconds longer than average and at both equinoxes it is about the same amount shorter.)

This effect has been well understood for (at least a couple of hundred) years but first came to my attention when a colleague asked me to look at an essay in which one of his students seemed to have figured it out for himself!

## Women in Computing

December 16th, 2013

Last week we got several reminders of the significant roles played by women in what is often perceived these days as a rather male-dominated and even somewhat macho field.

On Dec 6 Maria Popover's Brain Pickings site pointed to a tribute video  about holocaust survivor and 1960's software entrepreneur 'Steve' Shirley (produced by Google about 3 months ago as part of their 'computing heritage' series). Then on Dec 9  the Google Doodle was in honour of the birthday of Grace Hopper  who created the first compiled computer language in the 1950's, developed COBOL, and coined the term "debugging". And it may have been that which prompted the Christian Science Monitor to do a piece on a number of important female pioneers of computing  - going all the way back to Ada Lovelace who worked with Charles Babbage on the idea of programmable computers long before electronic versions were available (and whose birthday just happens to have been the very next day - but no doodle for her this year as she already got that honour last year).

## God in Proof

December 10th, 2013

I hadn't really been planning to read 'God in Proof' but this excerpt has me sufficiently engaged that I might actually do so.

## An Undergraduate Refutation of Atheist Evangelists

December 10th, 2013

In a post called A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists, David V. Johnson's use of the silly undergraduate-level technique of mockingly mislabeling the contrary position has distracted many of his commenters from what could have been the start of a fruitful discussion (about the appropriateness of vigorously promoting atheism).

The interesting question that Johnson reminds us of is what it means to claim that humanity would be "better off"  without religion.

This raises at least two major sub-questions. One is what it means for humanity as a whole to be "better off" and the other is what is meant by the word "religion".

Many people do claim that religion has caused more violence and immediate pain than it has prevented, but that claim is virtually impossible to verify. It is also similarly impossible to verify whether or not people would really be happier with or without the "consolations" of religion. But even if they would be, the question remains as to whether the comfort that might be provided by religion to its adherents is sufficient to justify the corresponding costs to themselves and others. Perhaps there are values higher than happiness, but who am I to judge this for others and to deny a drug that gives ignorant bliss to those who choose it. But what of those to whom it is administered without choice? and what if in addition to creating bliss for its users it also causes them to do harm to others?

Here, by "causing harm to others" I am referring less to the possible (but far from established) effect of augmenting the human tendency to tribal violence than to the effect of continuing to cloud the minds of future generations with pleasant fuzz which prevents them from achieving the possibly painful joy of a clearer enlightenment.

And then the other question is whether it is possible to have "religion" without insisting on counterfactual beliefs and without increasing our susceptibility to demagoguery. Does religion necessarily lead us to be less resistant to accepting the words of authority figures for example?

These questions all seem open to me but I have no wish for counter-rational comfort and prefer to rely on my own moral judgement rather than some external authority. So of course I prefer a society in which these tendencies are not put at a disadvantage. It would be nice to have rational arguments "proving" that such a society would be "better" but my guess is that they do not and will not exist - and that the best I can do is encourage progress towards the world I prefer in the hope (but not faith!) that it will in fact not be more hurtful to others than I can in good conscience accept. To that end, I am inclined to cheer on the atheist evangelists, but only somewhat weakly as there are other issues I consider more important.

## Where Credit Is Due

December 9th, 2013

Newt Gingrich deserves  applause for standing up to some of his co-ideologues in defense of the strategy and tactics of Nelson Mandela and the ANC, both now and in the past. He, along with Brian Mulroney and others, is among the minority of right wingers who resisted the pressure from those like Reagan and Thatcher who refused to properly oppose apartheid. It is worth remembering that not everyone on the right shares the shame of those who chose to keep people in slavery for fear of the political choices that they might make in freedom.

## Is Philosophy Stupid? No, but its advocates often are.

December 7th, 2013

The main problem with Philosophy as a distinct academic discipline is not that it is stupid, but that its advocates *are* often "stupid" in that they badly misidentify its value with claims like the following:

"Who am I?"

"What should I do with my life? How can I be happy?"

"Do I have the right friends? Are these bad friends?"

"Am I a bad person? Should I be living my life differently?"

"What's worth making sacrifices for? How much sacrifice?"

"Am I in love? What is love?"

"Is there a god / afterlife / cosmic plan?"

No, it does not answer such questions,  and the claim that it does that impossible task drives people like me close to madness in frustration. (Religion makes the same claim but is less irritating in doing so because in that case it's clearly out of some kind of desperation for an answer rather than with the smug assumption of academic rigor.)

What academic Philosophy does do very well is provide one (but not the only) source of experience and tools which help us to analyse reasoning about those and any other questions.  It does not provide answers, but a trained philosopher may well be useful in helping people at an impasse to look more deeply at the assumptions and mental processes of their interlocutors in a way that may help to resolve differences or at least to increase mutual understanding and empathy.

## Nelson Mandela

December 6th, 2013

Sad to have him gone but glad for the end of his final illness.  The man's infectious smile radiated a sincerity that I don't think anyone has ever denied, and I am thankful that that sincerity included an unwavering commitment to principles that I am proud to share (but ashamed not to have done much to advance).

## Even Total Recall Includes False Memories

November 19th, 2013

This article in The Atlantic points to research on people who can remember what they ate for breakfast on a specific day 10 years ago (and are found to be accurate a high percentage of the time when tested)  but it turns out that even these people often have completely convincing memories of "facts" that turn out to be false.

## David Suzuki Jumps the Shark

November 18th, 2013

According to this report  in Vice-Canada, David Suzuki has claimed that “If, in fact, the fourth plant goes under an earthquake, and those rods are exposed, it's bye-bye Japan, and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate. Now if that isn't terrifying, I don't know what is.” And if that isn't in fact complete nonsense, then I don't know what is.