social issues

Now We are Seven Billion! La, La, La

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Despite the evident threat to the well being of our descendants some idiots keep asserting that the "Population bomb theory is a myth".

What complete nonsense! For one thing China's "economic miracle" comes after 30 years of having a one child policy, for another, despite improvements in some areas we still can't provide decent standards for a substantial fraction of the world's population, and for a third, to maintain the standards of those who do now live in luxury is already having environmental consequences (eg ocean acidification and global warming) that appear to be beyond our control. It is thus grossly irresponsible to keep betting on future technology to provide an acceptable standard of living for a population that keeps growing faster than we can bribe it into satiated infertility. Shame on those who continue putting all of our children at risk!

Free Will and (Divine?) Foreknowledge

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Various defenders of academic philosophy  are offended (see, eg Jean Kazez and Daniel Fincke)by the contempt expressed by some for the idea of  "Divine Foreknowledge" as a topic of serious philosophical investigation (especially when funded by the "notorious" Templeton Foundation).  But while I think the question of whether and how some entity having potentially complete foreknowledge of one's behaviour may or may not be reconciled with some concept of "free will" is actually not without interest(and so agree with much of what Fincke says in his more extended rebuttal), I still sympathise with those who call the proposed study into question.


Use of the word "god" and reference to foreknowledge as "divine" are red flags for hard core "atheists", and legitimately so as they  imply something beyond what is apparently being addressed in the study and thereby appear to be sneakily endorsing an unstated (and unnecessary) assumption. The unqualified use of that loaded term for a hypothetical fully informed entity is unfortunate, and combined with the source of the funding it does, in my opinion, at least bring the study into question if not into outright disrepute.


Selfish Blogger Syndrome

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

The Selfish Blogger. Well that could certainly be me! So I'll stick to form and post my thoughts here rather than in Tony Bates's comment stream.

I have not been following #Change11 except through the blogs of people I found interesting in previoous MOOCs like #CCK11 and #PLENK2010, so without Jenny's (selfish?) post I would never have read Tony's piece or the presentation it refers to. And part of what I took as takeaway from the CCK experience is that what Tony describes as selfish is in fact the best way for all of us to be sharing. One thing I did not like in PLENK was the difficulty of recovering my own thoughts from the Moodle comment stream and I liked the CCK11 emphasis on facilitating communication and connection between individual blogs.

Tony is concerned about not being able to see and follow the comments on his work but I think we now have the technology to address that without forcing everyone to give up ownership of their own contributions.  It is true that once, in the absence of appropriate technology, it was always necessary for people to meet in person to exchange ideas. Then we invented writing, and all that was needed was a common location for all the written material. Then we invented telecommunication and computers, and the libraries and discussion threads became accessible remotely. And now we have trackback...

It seems to me that whatever the limitations of trackback, the issue is one of technology and the answer to Tony's complaint is not to force everyone back into the domains of recognized "leaders" as in a prehistoric centralized community, but rather to appropriately extend and use the technology of networking to allow each voice its own home while collecting whatever is relevant to any particular individual's interest in a particular chain of discussion for easy access as needed.

What seems to me to be needed is to integrate trackbacks and pingbacks into the comment stream (rather than listing them separately as an afterthought) and displaying a more useful excerpt  so that they actually do contribute tot he conversation. (This might require some slight extra work from the responder when posting so as to identify an appropriate "teaser",  and ideally the technology should be extended so that eg replies to me in Tony's comment stream would appear also here as comments and vice versa)



When 99% is really 0.01%

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

The Tyee ( Wall Street Occupiers, Don't Forget Ballot Box) says it rather too gently. The protesters and their direct supporters are more like a 0.01%  than 99%, and the other 99% of the real 99% were too stupid to do anything in the various elections where all of them have had plenty of chances to do so in the years since 2008 (let alone in all of the many decades before that).

One value of the protests though is that they may help move one edge of the frame in which those without minds of their own always try to center themselves.  When everyone starts repeating the mantras of "counterproductively asymmetric risk-rewards systems", and it becomes commonly believed that everyone understands them, then perhaps the electorate will venture to try out policies and tax systems which encourage a fairer distribution of wealth. I hope it happens soon, but I won't be holding my breath.

No Liability for Linking

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Michael Geist - Supreme Court of Canada Stands Up for the Internet: No Liability for Linking. Well, duh! In one sense it's amazing how this could ever have been an issue, but on the other hand publishing a link/reference to something could legitimately be seen as promoting whatever the target contained at the time the link was created, and so if "promoting" a point of view were illegal, then perhaps links would sometimes be liable.

What is most interesting to me about this is on the converse side. Justice Abella's  comment that she "would conclude that a hyperlink, by itself, should never be seen as “publication” of the content to which it refers" appears to provide protection against those who would presume to declare that others should not link to their material. Such declarations are clearly nonsense as it is the responsibility of the publisher to control access if that is what they want and if they choose to make their material freely accessible via a public address then anyone else is free to refer to that address.


Is Religion Above the Law?

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

What intrigues me about this is what appears to be the choice by various Supreme Court justices to use quite naive language to express questions which cannot fail to have occurred to anyone who has really considered this issue at any time over the past several centuries.

Are we really just now noticing for the first time that language assigning legal protection to the idea of freedom of religion is inherently problematical?

Surely that has always been obvious  - both because of the lack of any definition of what, namely religion, is being protected, and because of the difficulty of defining a protected freedom to engage in activities which may include the restriction of other protected freedoms of other people.

Why do you believe in God?

Monday, August 8th, 2011

This series from the New Statesman may (or may not) provide some of the insight I have been looking for into why intelligent decent people can adopt traditional-sounding religious positions. The answers I have been able to get from personal friends are generally not persuasive and it seems that to get something more satisfactory would require a level of probing that would feel unduly intrusive.

Does Philosophy Matter?

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Stanley Fish suggests that philosophical questions such as that of Moral Relativism vs Moral Absolutism are essentially irrelevant in practical terms. Though I might agree with Fish's take on philosophy about many other examples, this in particular is one where I do not.  In fact I think that one's position on that issue colours the attitude with which we approach the law - especially criminal law - and that a position of moral absolutism leads to an approach that I find offensive and which I suspect is counterproductive.

Another philosophical issue which impacts the law and how we apply it  is that of Free Will.  Primitive notions of responsibility can lead to application of punishment where it will do no good, and when doubts about the extent of our freedom arise, having founded the rationale for punishment on them can lead to a dangerous leniency which results from finding just about anything excusable. It would be helpful perhaps to identify "responsibility" just with what its etymology implies - namely the level of appropriate response to an offense - and to choose the response on the basis of what future effects it may have - in terms of restraining the offender, discouraging others from acting similarly, and mollifying the victims (all to be balanced against whatever pain or other harm that response causes to the offender).

This really does matter because bogus "philosophical" arguments do seem to be capable of persuading people to adopt legal positions that they would not otherwise have accepted.

Philosophy News | My Philosopher Can Beat Up Your Computer Scientist

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Philosophy News | My Philosopher Can Beat Up Your Computer Scientist.

Philosophy's perceived market disrespect (inferiority complex ?) is a reaction to the fact that there is no philosophy credential which predicts any useful skill any more effectively than any other arts degree. This is not to deny that a degree in philosophy may be correlated with a slightly above average skill level in literacy and basic reasoning, but I doubt that correlation is any stronger than for any other subject.  And more importantly, the absence of explicit training in philosophy not a negative indicator.  What a CS or Nursing degree has over one in philosophy is that it certifies a required minimum level of knowledge for certain kinds of employment (and if that minimum includes some exposure to the liberal arts then it should of course be included). The difference between philosophy and subjects like literature, art history, or pure mathematics seems to be mostly in the frequency of posts like this which take the legitimate value of a broad education as endorsement of philosophy in particular as some kind of technology for solving problems - for which I have seen no serious evidence and for which I am disappointed to see philosophers feeling a need.

Faith, Belief, and Unbelief

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

John S Wilkins of 'Evolving Thoughts'  is exploring some definitions to facilitate a discussion of the philosophical landscape around the issues of atheism, agnosticism, theism, and so on.

One point I took issue with in his first post was his statement that “To be an agnostic is to neither have nor not have a belief” which seems to me to be putting the existence of agnostics in conflict with the “Law of the Excluded Middle”. Although in colloquial speech we may often say "I don't believe it is raining" with an implication that we actually believe it is not raining, this is a) really just a colloquialism, and b) not the same wording as "I don't have a belief that  it is raining".

I expect Wilkins' further discussions to be interesting and possibly illuminating, but I am actually more interested in understanding what drives people who profess apparently (to me) unfounded beliefs, than in clarifying the language of those who do not.  Commenter Sarah Collett, referring to her own Christian belief (Mormon background)  says "I believe in Christ. . .  . I do not know if Christ is divine. But I choose his philosophy", and on her own site she expresses some of the challenges of what I would describe as sharing faith without belief.

Clearly, by "believe in Christ" Ms Collett cannot mean "believe that Christ is divine" (since she asserts one and denies the other), and it struck me that to "believe in Christ" in the sense of choosing his philosophy does not even have to imply "believe in the existence of Christ as a real physical being". He or it could be just a concept, and to "believe in" something or someone is not necessarily to believe the proposition of its existence as a physical entity. "I believe in fairies" may ask to be interpreted that way, but for "I believe in you" to be taken the same way would be . . . well . . . at least redundant. In fact, "I believe in you" is not at all an existence claim regarding the listeners, but rather a statement of trust or faith in their ability or willingness to do something that the speaker values. Perhaps it would be less confusing if such occurrences of "belief in" were all replaced by "faith in" or "trust in", but that is unlikely to happen and the best we can do is try to be aware of the possibility that they aren't tied to a physical existence claim.

With such a sense of "believe in" it seems not unreasonable for someone to say something like "I believe in Him who I do not believe exists" (or even "who, I believe, almost certainly does not exist") - and in fact I suspect that many high-ups in the Anglican communion are pretty close to that position.[Note (added Aug 5 2011): as are also apparently a substantial fraction of the mainstream Dutch Protestant Church]

Those who might mock such a faith are answered quite effectively by Ms Collett's clarification that what she is relying on Christ (be he person, god, or myth) to provide is not anything physical but just moral guidance from what she assumes to be "his" philosophy.

It seems to me that Ms Collett's sense of what "belief" means is as valid as any other, and that it is unfair of Wilkins to dismiss her definition as "begging the question" - (isn't that really what all definitions do to some extent anyway?)

But when she says "I find that belief is only valid if it is accompanied by some choice" and "What does an atheist choose to manifest his belief that there is no God?" I think she is making an error in the other direction.  Actually maybe a couple. There is really no reason why belief in  the truth of  a proposition must always lead to some action, and the lack of any such implied action does not make the proposition irrelevant or meaningless. For example "2+2=4" is a useful proposition which I believe to be true, but it calls on no action from me except when combined with other facts. Similarly "there are no gods" does not force any action upon us, and contrary to Wilkins' reply to Collett, it does not even require that we refuse to act as if we believed its negation. For example Wilkins says that "if an atheist has a positive belief that there is no god, that will necessarily <emphasis added> affect the way they live (for a start, they may not pay any attention to religiously-based prescriptions about sexuality or submission of women)", but if I was surrounded by co-tribalists who would stone me and my family to death should I fail to beat my wife for crossing some forbidden line then I probably would beat her if she did accidentally cross it (and I suspect that she might well be thankful for that) even if, in the privacy of my own mind, I had no truck with the mean and foolish beliefs of my community.

In fact it is true that atheism per se provides no moral guidance, but what many who fear it fail to note is that that does not preclude those who lack gods from finding such guidance elsewhere (either from external sources or by consulting their own internal "conscience").


Bible = AllBooks, Divinely inspired? - Isn't everything?

Note Sending Shivers through Canada's Media

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Rafe Mair has reproduced at Tyee the resignation note of 24 year old CTV bureau chief Kai Nagata who expresses eloquently why working for a TV "News" program is not what he wants to do.

Religions, cults and wacos

Monday, July 11th, 2011

John S Wilkins' piece on Religions, cults and wacos reproduces a couple of cartoons from Wiley Miller's Non Sequitur which make an amusing and important point about the various levels of respect accorded to different words for superstitious belief systems.

There is some attempt in the comments following Wilkins' post to explore more seriously what these terms actually mean, but it is largely immaterial to the main point of the piece.

For the most part, when re-inventing common words as technical terms, be it in mathematics or sociology, we are free to do as we will. There is no problem with differences so long as each party makes clear what their terms mean, and  none can claim to be more "right" than another unless both agree to work within the conventions of some academic body or discipline.  Absent that context, I would opt for traditional usages rather than give in to the ignorant abuses of the 20th century (which would for example have activists rather than cops "flaunting" their authority at a demonstration/riot). In that spirit I would suggest that a "cult" often refers to a practice or belief which is not necessarily exclusive (eg cult of the virgin mary is compatible with cult of john the baptist, cult of the little princess, or cult of the nazarene). A "sect" on the other hand, as suggested by the etymology, should refer to a subset or section of a larger group - and it is far more likely to be exclusive. Typically (at least until the language got butchered - and even then the distinction was more subtle than absolute) we follow, practice, or participate in a cult, but belong to a sect.

Of course the word that really matters is "religion" since that is the one which is most likely to scandalously command special treatment in the law. And actually, for legal purposes, I would be less scandalized by the special treatment of "religions" if they were objectively defined - perhaps even exactly as described in the cartoons.

More Media "levy" Madness

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Howard Knopf doesn't like the idea of extending the tax (or calling it one).

I didn't like having to pay a tax, or "levy", on the CDs I bought years ago to store photos and backup my HD, but I don't see any difference between that bit of theft and this one. In fact, although I resent the presumption that the tax, or "levy", is a fee for some service that I have no intention of using, I can live with the idea of a tax on media being used to support creative activities if that is the collective will of the nation.

Just don't call it a "levy", and interpret it as a fee for service, unless

(a)it entitles me to fill it with unlimited personal use copies of any works that I do buy, and

(b)there is some provision for levy-free media which are precluded from being used for copyright material (like the coloured tax-free fuel that is available in some places for farmers).

Time for a Change

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

OK today must be the start of a four year campaign to reach agreement between the NDP, Greens, and remaining Liberals to:

  1. Support an electoral reform which will provide for proportional representation - NOT based on party lists but on something more democratic like STV or some other preferential balloting system
  2. Educate the Canadian public as to the acceptability, efficiency, and desirability of "coalition" governments - even (or perhaps especially) when not including the party which happens to have the most seats in parliament
  3. Commit to endorsing strategic voting in the next Federal Election in order to achieve these ends

Only Obama

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Only Obama Succeeded Where Bush Failed ("Great shot sir!")

Only Obama can deal with the financial collapse caused by  the right wing libertarian attitude towards proper regulation of financial institutions

Only Obama could persuade us that the Lion King was born in Hawaii

But Only Limbaugh could come up with the slogan which will should drive the great Democratic election sweep of 2012



Goodbye CBC

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

As a complement to today's federal leaders' debate the CBC had a group of first time voters watch and comment. But while the clear majority felt that the NDP's Jack Layton was the winner (as demonstrated by holding up pictures) there was no identification made for those that couldn't clearly see and interpret the photos and the segment was edited so that the only leaders or parties mentioned by name were Harper and the Liberals. While this token item may be small in its actual impact, it may be one of the most blatant examples of media distortion I have ever seen in Canada and unless it is corrected I will no longer be a "Friend of the CBC"

Creationism at the Royal Society

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

This would be old news but for the fact that the Royal Society's president at the time was Martin Rees - who might now be seen by some as finally getting his reward for letting it happen.  On the other hand, Rees does seem genuinely bemused about the award so perhaps, in his mind at least, there is no connection. Many evangelical atheists object that Reese's accepting the Templeton prize lends credibility to the foundation - something I wouldn't have given much credence to except for the fact that someone called Mark Vernon is crowing exactly that.

Retail Internet Pricing - Without Slogans

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

All sides in the debate on "Usage Based Billing" are off base. The issue is quite complicated and not helped by the use of simplistic slogans which often either ask for the impossible or run counter to the interests of those tricked into reciting them. ...more »

No Shades of Gray?

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Sometimes I find PZMeyers over the top in his denunciations of religion (especially when he tars all with the same brush and goes on to demonize even those who merely point out that error), but this time he's right on the mark and expresses it most eloquently.

However, although there are no shades of grey with regard to the abominable nature of what occurred in Afghanistan in response to Terry Jones grandstand play, there certainly are with regard to how Jones and others around him should be judged. (Or for that matter how Meyers himself might have been judged if more of the wrong people had paid attention to his acts of deliberate blasphemy.) ...more »

Where’s the Left Wing Science Denial? Alive and Well in Vancouver I'm Afraid

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Chris Mooney at Discover Magazine is optimistic, asking Where’s the Left Wing Science Denial? But in fact, although there are many reasonable voices (and even George Monbiot has belatedly changed his tune and is now quite critical of the anti-nuke crowd), the media is still full of knee-jerk scare pieces like Olson's in the Vancouver Courier.
Other anti-nuclear voices, like this at the Huffington Post are actually somewhat more reasonable. But although there certainly are real risks (which I have experienced myself) those risks do need to be assessed fairly in comparison with the risks of whatever alternatives are being considered.

[Note: the last paragraph has been modified in response to the first comment below]