Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Chickens and Eggs

For one reason or another, there's a theme recurring in my thoughts today. It began on the bus ride to university, when I was contemplating the philosophy of language (as I am wont to do of a morning); one of the most interesting questions I've come across is where it meets the philosophy of mind. The question in its basic form is this:

Did our language evolve to reflect our concept of mind, or did our concept of mind grow out of the inaccuracies in our language?

The idea here is the possibility that phrases like "I have a body" mislead people into separating their identity from their physical presence - seeing one's body as a possession rather than as the root of the "self". The question here is asking whether this subtle nuance of the language grew out of our natural perception that we inhabit (rather than are) our bodies, or whether this perception itself came out of our habit of speaking this way. I'm inclined to say the former, but it's still a very interesting and thought-provoking question.

The second part of this continuing "Chicken and Egg" theme came when overhearing a conversation in the library about religion and morality. Someone was reporting someone else as saying that most contemporary morality originally comes from religion. They weren't drawing conclusions from this - just stating a fairly widely-held and generally uncontroversial view.

But it got me thinking: why would we assume this to be true, just because many of the laws of today's society (against murder, as a classic example) are also present in religion, which predates modern law? Do we not even think to consider what predates religion? This relates to Euthyphro's Dilemma, which asks:

Is something right because the God(s) approve of it, or do the God(s) approve of it because it is right?

I love Socrates. I think it's fairly clear to anyone who thinks objectively about these things that religious morality grew out of social morality - rules for living together harmoniously. Modern law then grew out of the influence of religious morality. It's generally a harmless mistake to fail to look beyond the initial cause to the root which gave rise to it, but in some insane rare cases, people are actually arguing that (for instance) atheists should be exempt from human rights, because morality comes from God. I'm not going to go into it here, but it may well come up in the future.

And on a final, frivolous note - the egg came first. Dinosaur eggs, anyone? Fish eggs? If you were to ask which came first, the chicken or the chicken egg, then the question might be a bit more interesting. But I'm just a pedant like that.

UPDATE: As regards the first question of language and the perception of the mind, there's been some research on it done recently. It would appear that there is evidence to support the idea that our language does in fact influence our understanding of things such as what it is to be alive. Via ScienceDaily.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Blink 4: Scientific Theories

Just a quick post for a large topic here, because it's covered well in other places. Critics of evolution (almost entirely made up of religious, anti-rational crazies) have certain mantras they like to repeat often; one of the most common of these is "evolution is just a theory!" ... Apparently this is supposed to discredit it, and portray it as somehow being in serious doubt.

If only they knew what an idea has to go through in order to become a scientific theory. They are actually confusing "theory" with "hypothesis", the latter being a far weaker position prior to testing. There is very little you can say to people who put forward this view - because it is itself ample demonstration that they don't think for themselves in a critical, rational way and are thus unlikely to be swayed by any argument.

You could try showing them some pretty convincing (and very cool) evidence.

But at the end of the day, elegance lies in simplicity - and I normally end up replying "so is gravity".

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Two Quickies

The news spat out a couple of interesting items today (well, a few actually, but at least one deserves a bit more thought and planning before making it into a blog entry).

Firstly, this article at BBC News holds the important facts for all those who insist on an anthropocentric approach to life: if we keep killing off those other species which share this planet, we will be losing out on a lot of potential medical advances. I'd rather this wasn't the only reason people were out to reverse the worrying trend in species extinction, but if that's what it takes I'll make do.

Second, my heart sank in expectation of ridiculous levels of credulity when I read the heading to this article: "Satan" driver cleared over crash. A woman took two lives with reckless driving, and blamed Satan. She was cleared of the charges. Thankfully for my sanity, hers was found to be lacking - which was the reason she was cleared.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

On motivations

Last night, I attended a Skeptics In The Pub meet-up in London chaired by the great Dr. Phil Plait, who gave a presentation on the "Moon Hoax Hoax" which systematically debunked some of the major claims of the conspiracy theorists. In the question and answer session that followed, the matter of motivation was raised - why do the conspiracy theorists adhere to these clearly irrational beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence? While the discussion touched on interesting ideas, I felt it missed something quite fundamental in our modern Western society.

Ever since the Vietnam "War" (for those who don't know, the quotes are there because war was never declared), there has been a rise in popular anti-establishment sentiment. The wide media coverage of the violence brought home to America and the rest of the world just how horrific these conflicts could be, and that they were being carried out by our elected representatives. Watergate deepened this trend, and from that point on, conspiracies suddenly emerged everywhere you looked.

It is hardly surprising that the single greatest human achievement of the twentieth century became a target for this obsession. While it is certainly not universally the case for every "believer" (some, I strongly suspect, are in it for the lucrative book deals etc.), I think it applies at least partially to the majority. These are the guys who stand to gain nothing from these beliefs, except the satisfaction and sense of superiority that comes with knowing a "suppressed truth". It's a good feeling, and one of which these (often socially isolated) people are understandably loath to let go.

This isn't intended to be an exhaustive answer to the initial question. I don't want to paint all believers with the same motivational brush - far from it. This is just something I think plays a significant role in these matters, and the origins of which I happen to find interesting.

Friday, 18 April 2008


If you don't already read the sceptical comic Cectic regularly, you should. If you need more convincing than my say-so, then take a look at this, latest, comic:

So one question remains - did the author read my mind, or my blog? I'm thinking the former is actually more likely.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Faith, scientists and the legitimate appeal to authority

It's almost enough to make you believe in synchronicity. You know, until you actually think about it.

It started with the discussion on the most recent episode of the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe of the so-called Monty Hall Problem. I won't bore you with the details here, because either you know about it or you can read up from a source far better at explaining the phenomenon than I. Basically, it's a statistical problem that seems completely counter-intuitive, and the main point I want to take out of it is that until you've wrapped your head around it, you really have to take the word of the mathematicians that they are right on this score. I think I've finally understood it myself now, thanks in the main to this interactive feature from the New York Times.

It really got me thinking about received ideas and our necessary reliance on authorities such as mathematicians and scientists. I idly toyed with the notion of blogging about it, but other things took precedence and eventually I just forgot. Then came this post over at Skepchick, which discusses much the same idea.

As I've mentioned before, with the aid of a Fry & Laurie sketch, we can't be expected to research everything ourselves. Dark matter, the particular instance pointed to by Vera's Skepchick post, is a great example. There's no way I'm going to have the time or inclination to delve elbow-deep into the stodgy mass of dark matter/energy research for myself, so - at least for the time being - I'm going to have to rely on the word of scientists to tell me what it's all about.

Does this amount to faith? The philosopher in me wants to go to town on that question, demanding delineation of exactly what faith should mean in this particular context. I think that might be a discussion to keep separate for another day - it has the potential to run on for some time, I think. To keep it brief, then, let's just say yes, it does amount to faith. The important difference here is, as you might imagine, that faith in scientists is justified and conditional. It is not the blind unquestioning faith of religion, but a rational faith in those who have proven the trustworthiness of their claims and methods time and time again.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

The Problem of Agnosticism

It's one of my rant-button topics. If someone equates agnosticism with "sitting on the fence" or generally with being indecisive, there's around an 80% chance they'll be receiving one of my carefully-restrained rants.

Etymology's always a fun place to start, so let's look at the word itself: "a-" is a negation (as in atheist), and "gnostic" pertains to knowledge. In its usual context, it's a belief that there can be no true knowledge of the supernatural. Agnosticism stands distinct from atheism and theism, not as a compromise between the two. Its adherents (for the most part anyway) have just as strong beliefs as the other two camps, but their PR is sadly lacking.

I do, however, think it's a mistake to paint them as three distinct viewpoints on the one subject - I consider myself both an agnostic and an atheist. How do I pull off this amazing feat? Well, I started as an agnostic, certain in my belief that regardless of if there was a god or gods of any sort, there could never be any convincing proof one way or the other. Then I became an atheist, swayed in the main part by the argument of necessity - it is not necessary to posit the existence of a supernatural, omni-everything being - Occam's Razor and all that jazz.

That didn't erase my agnosticism, however - I didn't hop from one camp to the other, because these things are rarely that clear-cut. As an agnostic, I still believe there could never be any convincing proof one way or the other; and yet I think that the atheist position is the far far more likely of the main two.

Do we need an "out" campaign for agnostics now? Probably not. Just a bit more education about what it means would be nice.

Friday, 11 April 2008


Further to my last post on awareness campaigns, I have a couple of things to add.

Firstly, I forgot to mention one of the other major issues that is doing well with a new awareness campaign - the "Anonymous" campaign against the Church of nucking futs $cientology. Ever since the Tom Cruise video was released, suppressed and re-released, we've seen a competent campaign against the Co$ by an organisation that doesn't technically exist. As this has made the national news, it's been brought into the public consciousness and made people ask "what is scientology? I thought it was just another harmless religion." I'm watching the campaign with much interest, and vastly enjoying the free spread of information and education about this dangerous cult.

Secondly, I'd like to follow up my comments on the campaign to get atheists to "out" themselves, à la 1980s homosexuals. There's a whole website dedicated to this campaign, and here's my big neon virtua-finger pointing at it:


Take a look, out yourself, spread the word.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Awareness campaigns

In an effort to kick-start my brain out of holiday mode and back into activity, I present a few of my thoughts on awareness campaigns - something that's been brewing in my mind for a while now.

I think it started during Breast Cancer Awareness Month last year, when I noticed an application on FaceBook which allowed users to display pink ribbons on their profiles (which is, of course, the symbol of breast cancer awareness). There were no donations going on that I could see - it was simply a picture of a pink ribbon, to "raise awareness". I'm all for raising awareness, particularly about important health issues such as breast cancer. But my problem with this particular campaign is twofold.

Firstly, the very fact that all you need is a pink ribbon to show support for this cause (and when was the last time someone asked what it meant to wear one?) surely demonstrates that awareness is pretty damned high. Second, it's not an information campaign any more; it's lost whatever substance it had, and is now more of a fashion statement than a part of a serious educational campaign. This is related to my first point because I think this is what will inevitably happen when an awareness campaign succeeds in its goal.

For the record, when I have the money to spare (which isn't often, being a poor penniless student), I'll donate to these causes. I'll also attempt to educate myself about them. But I won't simply display their symbol to "raise awareness" about something that no longer needs it.

So I'd like to take this opportunity to mention a couple of things awareness of which I feel needs to be raised. Firstly, female genital mutilation, or female circumcision. This WHO fact sheet covers most of what you need to know about this issue, and it's quite amazing that it's only now filtering into the public consciousness. I myself only became aware of this horrific practice in the last couple of months, and I can confidently describe myself as better-informed than the vast majority of the public. If anything could do with an awareness campaign, it's this - though I am fairly certain it would never take off, as it predominantly affects African and Middle-Eastern countries.

Also, and closer to home, I'd like to see an atheism awareness campaign - which is actually seemingly close to becoming a reality. As has been pointed out in various blogs, podcasts, articles and interviews, there are certain parallels between atheism now and homosexuality in the 1980s. There are a lot of atheists out there who either don't know that they are, or are reluctant to admit it due to the social repercussions. I'm very pleased to be able to consider myself a part of the burgeoning "out-of-the-closet" atheist community, to which the internet has been a huge help. We need people to feel comfortable admitting their atheism, and an educational campaign about what exactly atheism (or secularism, humanism, whatever) means.

So please, let's have some awareness campaigns for things that need awareness. Don't ignore old issues like cancer, of course, but don't get caught up in the fashion of simply promoting awareness of issues that no longer need it.