Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Do Unto Others

Monday, April 20th, 2009

The Golden Rule. Treat others how you’d like to be treated. Almost every culture in the world has a version similar to this and the only real variation is in the definition of who the ‘others’ are. In most primitive cultures, ‘others’ didn’t include the tribe over the mountain but, as we have formed larger and more inclusive societies, we are extending the boundaries of who qualifies as an ‘other’.

Most people reading this will likely have a boundary that now includes all humans. Some may extend this boundary to other animals capable of suffering to various degrees. Everyone I’ve met agrees that The Golden Rule is a good rule to live by but there are a large range of interpretations as to who the ‘others’ are.

A question I have is, should chimps and orangutans belong to this group we call ‘others’? What about other animals such as cows and sheep? Should we treat them as we would like to be treated? If not, why not?

This is a touchy topic and one I’ve given a bit of thought to over the last few years in examining whether I ought to become a vegetarian. In short, I still eat meat. I’ve decided that my boundary for ‘others’ is largely dependent on the issue of suffering. This is a fuzzy line however and roughly translates to an unwillingness to eat the meat of animals who, in killing them, has caused unnecessary suffering to either them or to others. I’ve found that there is no easy answer and that much of this is because we expect to be able to draw nice, clear-cut lines in what is (as is usually the case in matters like this) essentially a gradient. And I’ve found that it’s a good idea not to even try to draw too distinct a line and to be prepared to shift it regularly depending on the many factors that can apply (i.e. I would kill and eat a chimp if I were starving to death and had no other option but wouldn’t dream of it in my current status.)

In my current status I don’t like animal experimentation that causes suffering. I prefer to eat chickens that have had freedom to roam. I don’t mind eating sheep and cows so long as they are treated well. I don’t want to encourage cramped pig pens so avoid pork unless it’s free range. Chimps, orangutans, elephants, whales and dolphins (to name but a few) are very much in my group of ‘others’ and I would see the hunting and killing of one as causing similar suffering to killing a human.

Roughly, where is your boundary and why?


Thursday, April 16th, 2009

No one believes that they are dogmatic. We’re all far too reasonable for that carry on. But we can all point to a number of other people who we would term as dogmatic and, with a little imagination, we should be able to understand that they probably don’t think they are dogmatic. This leaves us with a dilemma; how do we know that we are not being dogmatic ourselves? If we can see others acting dogmatically who are unaware of it then, chances are, we could be too.

By ‘dogmatic’ I am describing an absolutist kind of belief that, if I could summarise in my own words, boils down to the fact that you would really rather hold to what you believe than accept an alternative even if the alternative is true. Dogma is the belief you refuse to interrogate.

Dogmatism can get in the way of new truths. The reason for this is that if you are unwilling to honestly put a belief to the test then you will never find out if that belief happens to be false. A valid argument can be made that perhaps there are some beliefs that we’d be better off clinging to rather than risking finding out a truth that would cause you great unhappiness. Would you like to find out that your partner cheated on you all those years ago? What if we discover that we are really just a brain in a jar somewhere living a simulation? What if God really is imaginary? What if God really is real? Whether we dare to search for the truth of a particular matter is a personal decision. But if we refuse to honestly put our beliefs to the test then we ought to show a little more humility when telling others what we ‘know‘ to be true.

So, assuming we do want truth, how do we avoid dogmatism? The best way I can think of is to actually value truth over any existing belief. This can be excruciating, especially when a belief is foundational to any meaning you get out of life. I found it very difficult many years ago to say to myself in all honesty that I would hold truth higher than my belief in the existence of God. If you’ve never believed in God you’ll probably struggle to understand the significance of this but, to a believer, God is truth and so it can seem a kind of fundamental blasphemy to say that you would even challenge the idea. If you do believe in God, fear not, many respectable people have done what I did and kept their belief afterwards and I greatly respect them for it.

Other than valuing truth over existing beliefs I’ve come across another technique that can help to break the emotional attachment we often develop with our dearly-held beliefs. That is to regularly switch perspectives or, “state the opposite”. An example of this is to first say what you believe i.e. “Labour has the best health policies” and then say the opposite i.e. “National has the best health policies” or, “Act has the best health policies” and try to mean it. You can do this with just about any belief in which you are tempted to take sides and it really can help to make you more objective because it can lessen the effects of the ‘in-group/out-group’ factor.

Does anyone have any other good tips or tricks for finding truth that can be used by anyone regardless of their starting assumptions?

How Polarisation Can Get In The Way Of Truth

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

In a perfect world, when faced with a contentious issue, we would assimilate the facts, weigh them against each other and come to a reasonable consensus (pending further information, of course). We don’t live in a perfect world however and I’ve observed in myself and in others that we often tend to treat our existing beliefs about the way the world works as if it were our favourite football team; we’ll stand behind them through good times and bad, through confirmatory and contradictory evidence.

This is a fairly natural thing to do and if we are aware of our own confirmation bias we can do a lot to gradually eliminate those ideas we previously held to be true but which were, in fact, false.

However, I’ve noticed that when two people attempt to discuss a contentious issue from two very different starting assumptions, instead of fostering a willingness to seek the truth regardless of the impact to our existing beliefs, we are driven further toward defending them against this new ‘enemy’.

I think that if our goal is truth then we ought to spend most of our time challenging our existing beliefs in dialogue with people with whom we have much in common. That way we’ll be less inclined to go into defensive mode and more likely to gracefully discard what was previously an incorrect belief.

This would mean that in many cases there would have to be a certain level of exclusivity to discussions but I think it would go a long way toward self-improvement even though it may take a very long time to unravel long-held presuppositions.

I want to be able to thrash out what I see as difficulties to do with consciousness or first causes without having to deal with the distraction of religious dogma or new age pseudo-science and, more importantly, I’d imagine that there are many conversations that other people would like to have without me jumping in and blurting out what I know must be true.

So, for those of you who have found me an irritation in the past, I hope to be less in your face with what I perceive to be the absolute truth. If you think I’ve got something wrong and you hold very similar starting assumptions to me then please feel free to rigorously discuss your ideas with me. If you hold very different starting assumptions please try to allow for the fact that you may be wrong and I will try my best to do likewise. We may, after all, both be wrong.

In a perfect world we should be happier to learn that we have been wrong than that we have ‘won’ an argument.

Time: What Is It?

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Listening to a BBC podcast recently it seemed that the experts were agonising about the nature of time. But isn’t time just our way of describing change? Not a thing in and of itself but rather a description of real things going from one state to another?

Perhaps I’ve missed a trick somewhere along the way. If so, enlighten me.

Dawkins talks to Fr Coyne

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Dawkins’ series The Genius of Charles Darwin is currently showing on the History Channel on Sky here in NZ. Omitted from the series was this insightful interview with Father George Coyne on the subjects of evolution, cosmology, science and faith.


‘Ultimate’ Free Will and Materialism

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

In recent conversations with theists I’ve come across a common objection to the possibility of free will if there be no supernatural dimension to the world in which we live. The argument goes along the lines of:

P1. Materialism assumes we consist of only matter (i.e. atoms)
P2. Atoms don’t have free will
C. We experience free will so there must be more to this world than just matter

an alternative is:
P1. Materialism assumes we consist of only matter (i.e. atoms)
P2. Atoms don’t have free will
C. Under the materialistic worldview we can’t ultimately have free will

I’ve heard this argument couched in numerous ways but the essence of it is that if our smallest bits don’t have free will then we can’t explain the freedom we appear to experience.

I can think of two answers to this.

The first (which I’m not personally convinced of) would be that we only have the appearance of freedom and that, as participants, we are able to fool ourselves into thinking we have control over what we do. My analogy for this is where the desperate dog-owner repeatedly tries to tell their disobedient dog to sit and when they finally notice that the dog is about to sit of its own accord, quickly say “sit!” in order to give themselves the feeling of being in control. This would make what we experience as free will a kind of a self-deception and, like I said, I’m not convinced this is the case but it is a valid answer to the first problem pointed out above. (Although, I must say that I think there is some truth to this at times, especially when it comes to self-justification).

The second, and far more powerful, option is to look at the analogy of music. Take a CD of your favourite musician and if we look closely we’ll see that the ‘music’ is made of only on or off states. 0s or 1s. When we play a CD we experience music but when we look at what this music (on a CD) is made of we can see that it’s just binary bits. And as we all know, a 0 or a 1 is not in itself music. This second argument would suggest that both free will and music are the emergent properties of their component parts doing something.

In the second set of arguments above I italicised the word ultimately. My analogy of music also helps to address the logical fallacy of the usage of this word. I don’t believe there is such a thing as ultimate music. Nor do I believe there is such a thing as ultimate free will. I believe that both are subjectively experienced and are results of non-free and non-musical atoms and bits doing something. We experience free will just as we experience music.

The use of the word ‘ultimate’ in this argument tries to imply that there are only two kinds of free will; ultimate free will or no free will at all. This is a false dichotomy. I would argue that there is at least another type of free will and that is the kind that is experienced subjectively and is only explainable at the macro level of bundles of atoms that are doing something. A world within a world. And using the music analogy once again, you can see how silly this argument is when I say “There is only either ultimate music or no music at all”.

“Free will” is a word that we’ve made up to describe an aspect we observe of the world around us. We have a tendency to want our words and categories to clearly demarcate things we observe into black/white, on/off, etc. But sometimes the words we invent fail at a point when the thing we are describing is a gradient, like ‘red’ (when does red become orange?) or ‘alive’ (are viruses alive? is fire alive?) or ‘music’ (is a ‘chirp’ music? what about a vibration on a violin string? or wind in the trees?). Free will is one of these words. We can observe a gradient of organisms with various abilities to do things. Free will is a gradual and emergent process and to treat it as a binary state is to become a slave to a simplistic understanding of the world and to imperfect vocabulary.

What’s So Great About Objective Morality?

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

I’ve observed conversations between theists and non-theists in which the theist will state that the non-theist doesn’t have a leg to stand on with regard to morality because if you don’t believe in a God then you can have no objective basis for your morals and so no moral belief can be better or worse than the other.

And I’ve watch many non-theists scramble to try to show that they do, in fact, have a basis for objective morality but I have to admit that I get a bit lost in the arguments. It’s likely that I don’t understand the finer details of what people mean by “objective” and “subjective”.

Every time I see such a conversation I think to myself that I’m quite happy to believe that there is no great measuring rod in the sky and that all such morals are evolved and subjective. To me, it seems to make sense that stealing can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on the circumstances (i.e. subjective) and that child rape is 99.9999999% detrimental (I always allow for those make-believe scenarios where you have to choose between, say, child rape and killing 1,000,000 people with a lawnmower).

I also think that when people use “wrong” and “right” as opposed to “detrimental” and “beneficial” it actually creates a circular argument for a kind of objective morality because the word “wrong” can be used in both an objective and a subjective sense (i.e. I hit the wrong key on the keyboard vs. abortion is wrong) whereas the word “detrimental” demands that you at least define a goal or framework that is being worked against.

So, theists and non-theists, is there really such a thing as objective morality? And what’s your definition of it? I’ve got no answers, only questions.

“The Answer” by Fredric Brown, 1954

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

Dwan Ev ceremoniously soldered the final connection with gold. The eyes of a dozen television cameras watched him and the subether bore throughout the universe a dozen pictures of what he was doing.
He straightened and nodded to Dwar Reyn, then moved to a position beside the switch that would complete the contact when he threw it. The switch that would connect, all at once, all of the monster computing machines of all the populated planets in the universe — ninety-six billion planets — into the supercircuit that would connect them all into one supercalculator, one cybernetics machine that would combine all the knowledge of all the galaxies.
Dwar Reyn spoke briefly to the watching and listening trillions. Then after a moment’s silence he said, “Now, Dwar Ev.”
Dwar Ev threw the switch. There was a mighty hum, the surge of power from ninety-six billion planets. Lights flashed and quieted along the miles-long panel.
Dwar Ev stepped back and drew a deep breath. “The honor of asking the first question is yours, Dwar Reyn.”
“Thank you,” said Dwar Reyn. “It shall be a question which no single cybernetics machine has been able to answer.”
He turned to face the machine. “Is there a God?”
The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without the clicking of a single relay.
“Yes, now there is a God.”
Sudden fear flashed on the face of Dwar Ev. He leaped to grab the switch.
A bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky struck him down and fused the switch shut.

In Honour of Austin Bernard Hemmings

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Yesterday an ordinary husband and father of three was leaving work for the day in downtown Auckland. As he headed home to his family he spotted a woman being punched by a man and did what any ordinary person would (and should) do; he intervened. The man attacking the woman then turned on him and stabbed him to death.

I’ve never met Austin Hemmings before and I can’t possibly begin to imagine what his friends and family are going through right now. But I count it as a great honour to live in the same city, country and world he lived in.

There are people who act to our detriment and there are those, like Austin, who, just by being themselves — by being ordinary — benefit us all. There will likely always be people who act to our detriment and there will likely always be terrible things that happen to good people for absolutely no reason at all but there will also likely be many good, ordinary people who we don’t notice on a day-to-day basis but who hold the very fabric of our society together by just being themselves.

So, Austin, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to recognise and appreciate you while you were living but I will try to make up for that by appreciating more the people who continue to go unnoticed everyday who carry on the valueable job of acting to the benefit of society. You are honoured. And you are extraordinary.

Reading List

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

Prior to 2005 I was reading mostly the kind of books that make the Whitcoulls Top 100 list along with the occasional classic by the likes of Dostoevsky, Hardy and others. And, of course, Iain [M] Banks whenever a new book came out.

In early 2005 a friend recommended Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It was this simple book that, to my great surprise, allowed me to clearly see the fact that my view of reality didn’t match what we can observe of the universe around us. Subconsciously I’d been aware of this fact but had managed to ignore it for 14 years or so. I decided that I would be better off with truth rather than a comforting fantasy and decided to investigate further. I watched a lot of documentaries, visited a lot of websites (and blogs) and talked with a lot of interesting people. I also read a lot of books – here are the ones that have influenced me the most over the last three years:

The Bible – Various Authors
The Mind of God – Paul Davies
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
E=mc2 – David Bodanis
Deep Simplicity – John Gribbin
Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
Climbing Mount Improbable – Richard Dawkins
The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan
The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris
The Richness of Life – Stephen J Gould
The Creation – E O Wilson
The End of Faith – Sam Harris
Various Writings – Thomas Paine
Breaking the Spell – Daniel Dennett
Why People Believe Weird Things – Michael Shermer
God is not Great – Christopher Hitchens
Infidel – Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Freakonomics – Levitt & Dubner
The Blank Slate – Steven Pinker
Consciousness, An Introduction – Susan Blackmore

And I have the following books waiting to be read:

Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond
How The Mind Works – Steven Pinker
The Ancestor’s Tale – Richard Dawkins
Freedom Evolves – Daniel Dennett

I’m not sure where I’ll go to from here but I feel I’ve done the topics of religion, superstition and pseudoscience to death. Evolution, cosmology and the workings of the mind still fascinate me so I’ll probably carry on down that path for a while.