Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

“Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”

3 January 2011 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY ninjanoodles

Most of us are familiar with the scene in the fantastic 1999 film, The Matrix, where Cypher and Neo are chatting about their introduction to life outside the matrix via Morpheus’s offer of a choice between the red and blue pills. Cypher laments that he wished he’d taken the blue pill instead, making it clear he’d have preferred to be living a happy fantasy rather than risking everything by fighting against the machines.

One of the great things about Cypher’s character is that you can empathise with him. Nobody can blame him for wanting a simple, easy life — especially as he’s not The One. At that point in the film we all know that he’s just as likely to end up a smudge on the ground as make old bones.

I mention The Matrix because that’s how I’ve been feeling lately. And this is where I may lose you as a reader. Either way, so it goes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been consuming the works of two prolific writers and speakers, both world experts in their fields: Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn. Chomsky (now 82) is regarded by many as “the Einstein” of his field of linguistics and cognition at MIT, though outside the classroom he talks almost exclusively about political science. Zinn was regarded similarly in his field of history at Boston University.

I first encountered Chomsky in the early 2000s via his book Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies [Amazon|UK], a collection of essays and papers focussing mainly on Central American politics and history over the last 40 years. It’s an astounding book that left me truly stunned, wondering about the rest of the world if even half it it was true. He provides full references and consistently avoids a simple answer to, “If the mainstream media is wrong, biased, controlled or corrupt, then where should we turn to get reliable information?” His answer is typically a variation of Ben Goldacre‘s, “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.” There is no single source, type or medium of reliable, unbiased or uncorrupt information. You need to look at the mainstream, the margins, including sources you may dislike, and analyse what’s going on for yourself.

Damn. I’m going to have to think for myself. And that’s the point.

Zinn is a fairly recent discovery for me, though most people know him via his groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present [Amazon|UK], where he included the viewpoints of non-Europeans in the discovery and conquest of North America. I’ve not yet read it, but I understand that it’s a polarising work, and your reaction to it will depend upon whether or not you’re prepared to revise your views on official history. Interestingly, the FBI kept a large file on him, most notably due to his influence on Martin Luther King, Vietnam anti-war campaigning and the McCarthyist hysteria of the time.

And this is where I think many of Chomsky’s and Zinn’s detractors come from: many seem to regard them as un-American or even traitors. Both authors present alternative versions of recorded history, removing the infantile notion of good (us) versus evil (them), and add insult to that injury by presenting other reasons why such things did or are happening in the first place. It’s not as simple as the official version; it’s not even as simple as the counter-accusations or popular conspiracy theories. It’s a complex mix of power, greed, acquisition, control, domination, influence and coercion, and furthering of interests.

The use of past and present tense is deliberate — these things are still happening. Consider the endless stream of major and minor wars in the 20th and present century, the provision of “foreign aid” weapons and training to brutal and sadistic regimes, the quiet growth of internal enforcement agencies into international intelligence agencies (as has just happened with the DEA), the dismantling of union-protected workplaces that made our workers cheaper than those in some developing countries, and national elections of leaders whose candidates can be differentiated only by their party’s logo. To name a few.

Neither Chomsky nor Zinn pretend to be 100% certain about everything they say. Both admit they may be wrong, and are open to evidence-based correction. Nor should you take it from me as fact, an amateur hack who spends his spare time consuming non-mainstream information, wondering about the world and sharing the occasional thought here whenever I’m not playing computer games or socialising with friends. Use, refine and practise your analytical skills and skepticism to examine what these men say, compare it against what you see, know and/or suspect, read the papers and articles to which they refer, and then judge for yourself.

There is no universal truth, and I’m not declaring that this is it — but it makes you think. However, if you’re unwilling to have your perception of world history and current events challenged, you may want to choose the blue pill…

Here are some of Noam Chomsky’s works that you might want to look at:

  • An American Addiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Case Studies In Hypocrisy [Amazon|UK]
  • Class War: The Attack On Working People [Amazon|UK]
  • The Clinton Vision: Old Wine, New Bottles [Amazon|UK]
  • The Emerging Framework Of World Power [watch online]
  • For A Free Humanity [Amazon|UK]
  • Free Market Fantasies: Capitalism In The Real World [Amazon|UK]
  • The Imperial Presidency [Amazon|UK]
  • The New War On Terrorism: Fact And Fiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Propaganda And The Public Mind [Amazon|UK]
  • Prospects For Democracy [Amazon|UK]

Here are some of Howard Zinn’s works that you might want to look at:

(I haven’t read or seen all of these yet). Both have released many more works, but I think that will keep you busy for some time.

Excellent essay series on Stoicism

2 November 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY euthman

For many years I’ve internally identified with many of the central tenets of the ancient Stoic philosophy, mostly after reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (Amazon|UK), but it’s not something I’ve seen much about so haven’t really considered it beyond the “Yes, I identify with that” concept that many of us do whenever we encounter a whole or partial philosophy.

I’ve written previously about my exploration of some philosophies and religions, but Stoicism is something I’ve not really spoken about with anyone. It, along with my examination of Buddhism have, largely unconsciously, informed much of my mental wiring with regards to topics such as reactions, drives, ambitions and wants. It affects and informs my interactions with family and friends, my view on possessions and consumerism, many aspects of my personal and working life, and even how I behave in the inevitable British traffic queues.

Imagine my surprise to discover recently on BoingBoing, one of my daily reads, an excellent series of essays on the subject of Stoicism by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University, entitled Twenty-First Century Stoic:

  1. From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic
  2. Insult Pacifism
  3. Stoic Transformation

They are an excellent introduction to the philosophy, and the comparison to certain aspects of Buddhism resonates with my own experiences. I can’t pretend to agree with everything in these essays, nor do I think the philosophy is without its faults, but by the same measure I don’t completely agree with everything written by atheists or humanists — also worldviews with which I strongly identify.

Even if you are not particularly interested in adopting such a philosophy on life, I recommend looking into what Stoicism is really about. It may surprise you to learn that it’s not really all about emotional passivity and the stiff upper lip. You could read a modern work on the topic, such as Irvine’s own A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Amazon|UK) — or you could go directly to the ancient writings of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Seneca (Letters from a Stoic / Epistulae morales ad Lucilium),  Epictetus, and the logician Chrysippus. Their works aren’t covered by copyright, so are available in many places online, including Project Gutenberg.

Countdown to TAM London

15 October 2010 Comments off

In about twenty minutes my taxi will arrive to take me to the train station, which with then whisk me into London for the start of TAM London 2010, taking place at the London Metropole Hotel.

To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement. Last year saw the inaugural TAM London, the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting event to take place outside of the US. It was a resounding success and was attended by people from all around Europe from all walks of life — some of whom were household names. During that weekend I made a number of friends, most of whom I have been in regular contact with ever since. Many of us have subsequently joined or started skeptic groups in our own communities and have become more active in our fields of interest.

This year the event is taking place in a bigger venue, as there are far more people attending, and I’m looking forward to seeing those same friends again this weekend, making new ones, enjoying the talks and performances — particularly the world première of Tim Minchin‘s Storm movie — as well as the chance to chat with and get to know people during the breaks.

If you’re a skeptic, atheist, humanist, secularist, or scientist, then the opportunity to commune meaningfully with like-minded people is not to be underestimated.

After all, who said only the religious get to have a social life and sense of community?

Phil Plait says: Don’t Be a Dick

18 August 2010 Comments off

There is a certain irony to this post, considering my previous post, but it’s worth my vaguely embarrassed shuffling feet.

As you may be aware, Dr Phil Plait is an astronomer, science blogger, author (most notably Bad Astronomy [Amazon|UK] and Death From The Skies! [Amazon|UK]), public speaker with magnificent on-screen/-stage presence, educator, and also skeptical activist and the former President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). He’s also recently announced that he has a TV show called Bad Universe — the pilot airs on Sunday, 29 August 2010. Enough of the plugs…

During the recent The Amazing Meeting (TAM) 8 conference in Las Vegas, Phil gave a talk that generated quite a bit of controversy in the blogging world — including from a number of fellow skeptical activists. That itself is becoming increasingly more common, but what is entirely uncommon was the messages of Phil’s talk. You should watch it.

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick (JREF)

You’d need to have been asleep to not have seen how deeply important that message was to Phil. I’d be hard-pressed to recall any speech I’ve seen or heard that is so deeply impassioned, compassionate and humanistic. Everything he says is correct.

It truly is far too easy to mock the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, to score cheap points, to shout the doctrines or proofs of our own position over others, to be abusive and insulting, to treat others as sub-human or idiots. You may say (as some of the talk’s detractors do) that this is justified in light of what they or those they identify with have done, but the fact remains that if you’re not behaving like a grown-up when discussing these topics, you’re deliberately expending time and effort showing others how smart you are while confirming both that skeptics are dicks and closing that mind to further discussion. I have better things to do with my time.

It’s impressed me deeply enough to see about how I can re-think my approach to the topics I write about. Stay tuned, sports fans.

One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue II

25 July 2010 Comments off

Following on from my previous quote from Cosmos, here is another quote. This one is talking about the paradox of the complexity and simplicity of a cell:

If we plunged through a pore into the nucleus of the cell, we would find something that resembles an explosion in a spaghetti factory — a disorderly multitude of coils and strands, which are the two kinds of nucleic acids: DNA, which knows what to do, and RNA, which conveys the instructions issued by DNA to the rest of the cell. These are the best that four billion years of evolution could produce, containing the full complement of information on how to make a cell, a tree or a human work. The amount of information in human DNA, if written out in ordinary language, would occupy a hundred thick volumes. What is more, the DNA molecules know how to make, with only very rare exceptions, identical copies of themselves. They know extraordinarily much.

Yet again, the final sentence strikes me as a wonderful turn of phrase, particularly as I read everything Carl wrote with the memory of his voice and its peculiar tempo playing in my head.

The Human Genome Project was only half-way through mapping the human DNA when Carl died in 1996. The Project ran from 1990-2003 and, just as we once did with hieroglyphics, we are still only just tapping the surface in deciphering what it means nearly ten years later (also see the extensive Wikipedia entry). Since this initial, mammoth breakthrough, many more donor genomes have been sequenced — it seems to be a growing industry.

And as for Carl’s estimate of the size it would take in print form, the original genome has subsequently been printed into 119 bound volumes, containing all of the three billion base pairs. Though I imagine it would make rubbish bedtime reading…

Categories: science Tags: ,

One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

12 June 2010 Comments off

I’ve recently begun reading Cosmos by Carl Sagan (Amazon|UK), which is well overdue since the accompanying TV series has been my favourite piece of television since I was in primary school.

While reading Chapter 2, “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue,” where he’s talking about evolution using his work with Nobel laureate H.J. Muller (discoverer of X-ray mutagenesis) and Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies as an example, a paragraph just jumps out at you:

The secrets of evolution are death and time — the deaths of enormous numbers of lifeforms that were imperfectly adapted to the environment; and time for a long succession of small mutations that were by accident adaptive, time for the slow accumulation of patterns of favorable mutations. Part of the resistance to Darwin and Wallace derives from our difficulty in imagining the passage of the millennia, much less the aeons. What does seventy million years mean to beings who live only one-millionth as long? We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.

What a magnificent turn of phrase. It sums up what we know of artificial and natural selection, underlines the breakthrough of its realisation, and wraps it into a beautiful philosophical illustration.

Knowing the TV series as I do, I’m looking forward to many more stand-out pieces such as this during my journey through the Cosmos, as it were. If you’re good, I may even share them with you…

Revisiting Pascal’s Wager

6 June 2010 Comments off

A while ago I covered Pascal’s Wager, the logical fallacy used by some religious people to ‘reason’ non-believers into believing ‘just in case’ their particular god story is true. And then along comes a single image to cover it simply and succinctly:



When you then consider the likelihood that this is the only life we get — that there’s nothing once we pop our clogs — all of that suffering, brutality and ignorance becomes tragic.

Of course if there is a god of some kind, then he/she/it/them will appreciate the person who used the brains they were given, rather than hitching their horse to the wagon they were born next to.


Hat tip: LOLgod

It’s that time of year again…

25 December 2009 Comments off

Image courtesy of Crispian Jago (used with permission)

As a godless heathen, many religious people that I know and love expect me to treat events such as Christmas not only as a “normal day” but to be positively antagonistic towards it, and seem surprised that I’m happy to give gifts and participate.  While it’s true that last Easter I did (and will continue to) poke fun at one of the popular myths surrounding it, with the exception of religious privilege, none of that really matters to me.

The origins of such celebrations doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate or enjoy the human and relationship aspects of them. With Christmas* — particularly now I live in the northern hemisphere, where the seasons give it sense — I enjoy the symbolism and generosity of giving and receiving gifts and the knowledge that it’s the half-way point of the winter season, as marked by the shortest day. And but for seasonal thermal lag, it’s all downhill from here and the promise of spring is just around the corner.

So whatever your beliefs or philosophy, I wish you and those you love the best of the season this way: Reason’s Greetings!

* Or Yuletide, Saturnalia, Hannukah, Dongzhi, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Malkh, winter solstice, or even the modern Festivus, Kwanzaa and the unusual HumanLight.

Thanks to Crispian Jago for kindly allowing me to use this image.
Check out his Science, Reason and Critical Thinking blog.

The “all Christians are…” fallacy

27 November 2009 Comments off

This post may cause trouble. There’s an issue that’s been bothering me since before I began to self-identify as an atheist (among other labels that we pigeonholers of a people like to place upon ourselves and others) that bothered me then, but does so even more now.

I have a problem with atheists who denigrate people of faith just because they hold a faith. There, I’ve said it.

My mother’s uncle turns 80 in January and he’s a Methodist lay-minister, hobbyist philosopher, critical thinker with many interests, and is a lovely man with whom I get on famously. Or did, until Easter when he saw the Atheist Bus Campaign sticker on the back of my car. His immediate, unthinking reaction was to turn to me and utter, “Oh, so you’re one of those?” By “those” I assumed he meant an atheist, so I said yes. No big deal, asked and answered simply and matter-of-factly, like “Do you like grapes?” and “Yes.” It’s now almost December and we’ve only just recently managed to establish dialogue that doesn’t include preloaded assumptions. It’s not that he wouldn’t talk to me anymore, but rather that everything he said, did and thought regarding me was now coloured with negative expectation: a shit-coloured filter.

As it was, this evening’s conversation started with his enquiry about me attending Christmas lunch with them, as I’ve done most years since moving to England. For some reason his expectation was that now I am the A-word I’d not participate in “Christian festivals” and even be antagonistic towards them. After pointing out that on one hand nearly all Christian festivals were pagan festivals long before the Catholic church came along and usurped them, and on the other hand I recognise that it’s human nature to participate in ceremonies and rituals of the passage of time, seasons and events, and such things possibly pre-date religion. He’s mollified, and Christmas is back on. Yay, status quo.

This brings me to the point of this post. The reality-based community with which I identify are more likely to use — and use successfully — logic, reason and critical thinking in arguments against everything ranging from philosophy to religion. And it’s wonderful. I mean it.

But there a section of this community that not only antagonises people of faith (I can intellectually understand this, if not agree entirely with) and often does so by using logical fallacies and cognitive biases, some of which include straw man, ad hominem, false dichotomy, sampling bias, and bias blind spot. (You’ll probably find unintended examples of these throughout this blog). I doubt you’ll find many atheists who won’t challenge religious fundamentalism and zealotry with gusto, facts, science and logic. And rightly so. But to extend that a little, a number of atheists cannot understand how any otherwise rational and intelligent people could possibly also have religious faith — particularly if they work in a science profession — so they must clearly be deluded or poor thinkers.

And then this argument often rears its head: the religious moderate is as bad, if not worse, than the fundamentalist. The rationale for this often being that moderation allows the presentation of an acceptable face of a brutal, primitive set of dogmas, or facilitates that faith’s entry through an otherwise closed door. As if, somehow, they’re all as bad as each other. To anyone who’s thought about this seriously for a moment, this is clearly not true. Yes, there are monsters in positions of power in any religion, just as there is throughout the general laity, but to caricature every member of a faith in that way is disgusting. It makes a mockery of the critical thinking and logical arguments that person holds to be valuable and worthwhile, because that person has exercised none of it.

My great-uncle has reacted and behaved the way he has with me because of the public face of modern atheism, with its often total disregard for the feelings and sensibilities of the average person — despite the fact he’s never seen any of those negative, judgemental or intolerant qualities in me. In its zeal to slap down the worst of faith and try to stem the tide of stupid overtaking the world, that form of atheistic expression is harming normal people. Those may be people who simply have not yet reached a point in their lives where they’re able to objectively reflect upon the inconsistencies and logic problems of their own faith when compared to the world around them.

There is something of which I am unequivocally certain: this perceived New Atheist “all guns blazing” approach isn’t going to work.

It’s the argumentative, brow-beating equivalent of the outlawing of religion in China and the former USSR. How can it possibly work against faiths that get excited about martyrdom? And I’m not just talking about Islam here: most major religions revel in the chance to play the oppressed, downtrodden and beaten servant of their god. They simply say, “I will practise my faith regardless, and any punishment I may receive will be my sacrifice to <insert deity here>, which will reap me rewards in <insert afterlife here>!”

Yes, it’s awful that in the 21st century billions of the world’s population are still slaves to Bronze Age superstitions. But no, screeching like a banshee at your neighbour isn’t going to make them suddenly say, “You know what… you’ve been insulting everything I’ve ever valued for years now, but I see it now: you’re right!” Just because something may be provably wrong, it doesn’t mean that an otherwise intelligent person will see it that way — you’re staring in the face of cognitive dissonance.

So am I advocating appeasement? Certainly not. But a large number of worldwide scientific community do not consider themselves atheists. Are they to be excluded from scientific endeavour? Again, certainly not. The same is true of the average member of the public. Religions and superstitions may be laughable and ridiculous, but they kill thousands of people every day and are not to be underestimated in terms of their importance to the people that hold them. And some of those people may love you and be hurt deeply whenever, by inference, you call them imbeciles.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution is — or even if there is one, at least that doesn’t involve totalitarianism — but I am certain that the lumping of people like my great-uncle in the same basket as a religious terrorist is wrong. And yet I see it every day in the atheist blogs I read, and in the other atheistic and even new media I consume: the deliberate misrepresentation of members of a faith as if they’re all as bad as the worst public figure in that faith. It’s wrong and it has to stop.

NOMA and cognitive dissonance

23 August 2009 Comments off

Charles Darwin is demonised by many religious people for his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, and for contributing to the discovery that all life on earth is essentially a huge family tree and subject to natural selection — concepts that have stood the test of time and been confirmed with DNA analysis. Theists who consider it their “duty” to conduct ad hominem attacks on those who threaten their fragile worldview are often unaware that this knowledge created a dilemma for Darwin himself, particularly as even while on his historic journey on the Beagle (1831-1836) he was a religious man studying to become a church minister who saw adaptation of the species as proof of God’s design. But to him the truth was more important than wishful thinking.

My suspicion is that those who vilify Darwin not only have never read a single word he wrote, nor understand the magnitude and relevance of what that work has given us, but assume that it was his life’s ambition to be an iconoclast. While in a sane world such patently ignorant people would not rise to the surface and require scraping off, our world is one of vox populi, inadequate or ideologically-manipulated education, idealised and politically-aligned news and media, and what much of the service industry call “80/20 people”: 20% of people cause you 80% of the grief. The vocal minority.

The late biologist, historian and science populariser, Stephen Jay Gould, coined the term Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) which referred to his philosophy on science and religion, developed during his many dealings with Young Earth Creationists of which he says:

Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history — a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean.

Young Earth Creationism is clearly the lunatic fringe by anyone’s rational measure, but there are other forms of Creationism that can’t be dismissed as easily, so tend to fall into the same category as whether there is a god(s).

Gould’s view was that religion and science are two realms that are logical and ethically unable to comment on one another, in the same way that a food chemist is unqualified to comment on matters of architecture. It seems to be a form of cognitive dissonance, separating faith from the world around us in a positive context. The inference being that it’s possible to believe in a god and be a scientist, and never have the two concepts collide in your own head.

I have a good friend who is a PhD scientist and a devout Wiccan: cognitive dissonance and NOMA allow both of those things to exist in her head without clashing. Of course I hope she understands what I’m trying to convey here, and doesn’t take offence! :)