img.latex_eq { padding: 0; margin: 0; border: 0; }

Sunday, 29 July 2007

We need our own satire (sigh)

Jon Stewart is, naturally, particularly amusing to me in this segment:

Yeah, it sucks about the no satire rule, and I'm sorry to see so many politicians sacrifice principle for the sake of pride -- sorry, but not surprised, because every New Zealander knows you can't trust the bastards. There's still plenty of room for satire, mind -- you just can't use parliamentary footage. Some of the television networks have suggested they'll break the rules if they get footage that suggests satire. Good for them. Notwithstanding that, I've probably been shirking my duty as a citizen by not writing letters on this one.

The best part of the segment is Stewart's blatant cluelessness about my country, of course:

"Whangarei [and I feel like I shouldn't spell that correctly, given the mangled pronunciation] is the northernmost city in New Zealand, known, comically, as a cultural backwater."

Yeah, right.

Gore, Mr. Stewart, Gore is the town most commonly referred to, comically, as a cultural backwater. In the South. Where it's cold, so people don't want to live there so much. Because this is the Southern Hemisphere.

I guess we really do need our own satire.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Daughter's Sestina

Even as she murmured nonsense words,
she thought of her own girlhood and felt fear.

Dazed and full of love, the young mother

made up her mind, no effort could be lost

in keeping safe her soft and stroppy daughter.

If she was clever, perhaps all would be well.

With patience and perception she taught well,

growing the maiden strong. With reasoned words,

flexibly she prisoned up her daughter

with logic, safety and a touch of fear --

subconscious fear, perhaps -- it was not lost

upon the daughter. How she loved her mother!

Almost breathlessly she watched, this mother,
watched the young woman pass so well
through years in which the mother had been lost.
Often she would seek her mother’s words,
asking on things that she might think to fear.
Close, still, in teenage years; a good daughter.

As she became older, this good daughter
would move to grow still further, tell her mother
that she might like to try despite her fear.
Her mother listened to the rising well
of curiousness and courageous words
and shuddered, though she knew not why; she lost

perspective, thought her daughter might be lost
from the nest. She moved to keep her daughter,
making new suggestions. Easy words!
Sometimes the daughter argued, but her mother
had nurtured her obedience too well.
Sighing, she gave way to her mother’s fear.

How could she not learn better things to fear?
Watching the world go by with chances lost,
risks not taken, things not learned, how well
she knew the beauty she had missed, daughter
with too much patience for her mother,
needing to act and not waste time with words.

How to break free? She means well, my mother.
I fear she’ll never know how much I’ve lost.
Caught in sestina words, I’m always “daughter”.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Humanist Symposium #5

... up at The Green Atheist.

Feel free to visit, even if you're not a humanist.

Friday, 20 July 2007


Doubt is a virtue, people.

By this I do not mean to say that we should seek to doubt everything without further thought. Courage is also a virtue, but to seek to be maximally courageous without further thought would kill you very quickly. Just as wise courage does not consist in doing everything dangerous that you can find, so also wise doubt does not consist in giving no credence to anything. Rather, doubt and evidence play counterpoint to each other; doubt creates room for new evidence and the desire to seek it.

Doubt is connected both to courage and to humility. It takes humility to concede that you might be wrong, humility to be open to the ideas of others and to resist the temptation to assume that the conclusions you have reached to date will always be as sensible as they currently seem to be.

But courage is perhaps the most difficult aspect of doubt, and lack of courage rather than lack of humility is surely the biggest reason why none of us are perfect doubters. The ideas on which you build your life can be like a platform above an abyss of doubt, despair, and purposelessness. Subjecting the ideas on which you build your life to skeptical criticism is like jumping on the structure to see if it holds. It can, with good reason, feel like tempting fate.

Doubting yourself is psychologically difficult enough that nobody could be expected to doubt themselves completely all the time. Indeed, it takes work. As soon as we find the foundation to be unstable we have no choice but to shore it up somehow, and if we are to hold to the ideals of doubt, a quick-fix refusal to look is out of the question. Instead, we have to try to find a better way of living. This can be more or less time consuming, depending on the problem. Nobody can force you to do it. The only way you could possibly survive a major change in this area is to take it in your own time.

Now imagine if I told you that you didn't need to doubt. Imagine if I said "You can take this as absolutely true and go build your life on it, no need to question." Would you be tempted? Would you take the opportunity to try to escape fear of the abyss?

I don't know if it works. But it's wrong. It's lazy. In some cases it has terrible consequences, as the dubious history of so many religions and the famines (to say nothing of terrible abuse of human rights) caused by communist regimes clearly show.

When religions explicitly sanction a complete lack of doubt, such blatant encouragement of laziness is in stark contrast to the bold ideals of virtue that religion usually demands in other areas. While you must be constantly on your guard against greed, anger and jealousy, you may have as much faith -- I spit the word -- as much faith as you like. Often, it is worse. Being allowed to be intellectually lazy is bad enough, but to be encouraged to be so! I am told that faith can be difficult. I dare say it is. I dare say complete gluttony would also be rather difficult. But it is also, pardon the phrase, bloody stupid.

Doubt is tough. Nobody ever said that virtues are easy! All we can do is try our best to be both open and discerning at the same time.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Formal logic, counterfactual conditionals, and free will.

Formal logic seeks to abstract general principles of reasoning which are in some way independent of context. For example, if we know that sentence A is true, then we know that the sentence "Either A or B is true" is also true. We don't need to know exactly what A (or B) actually say in order to know that this is a valid piece of reasoning, where "valid" means that if the initial assumption (premise) is true, then the conclusion follows logically. We can write this as follows:

Premise: A is true.
Conclusion: Either A or B is true.

Here are some more valid arguments:

Premise: A and B are both true.
Conclusion: A is true.

Premise: If A is true then B is true.
Premise: A is true.
Conclusion: B is true.

Premise: If A is true then B is true.
Premise: B is not true.
Conclusion: A is not true.

Some people find this sort of thing more obvious than others. Well, all right, everybody finds those first few examples that I have given obvious, but the last one requires different amounts of squinting with your head to one side, depending on natural ability and how much practice you've had. If you can't see it immediately, suppose that both premises are true and note that if A were also true, B would be true (by the previous argument), which would make B both true and not true. As a result, A must be false.

If this all seems like so much obviousness, consider that around the beginning of the twentieth century there was a movement to construct all of mathematics from this sort of abstract logic. That this movement ultimately failed in an interesting way does not change my point that formal logic can go well beyond the obvious.

People use different types of shorthand for various logically important words like "and", "or", "not" and "if". I shall use the following:

A_______A is true.
~A______A is not true.
AvB_____Either A or B is true (or both)
A&B_____Both A and B are true.
A->B____If A is true then B is true.

One way of explaining the exact content of each of these statements is in a truth table such as the following:


The first line of this table states that, in the case where statements A and B are both true, the statement "~A" is false, and the statements "AvB", "A&B" and "A->B" are all true. Alternatively, we can look down the second column for the right to see that the statement "A&B" is only true in the case where both A and B are true.

Some of you may be slightly discomforted by the "A->B" column. I know I was, when I first saw it. Yes, the fact that today is not Wednesday means that the statement "If today is Wednesday, then I have five legs" is true. Certainly the truth table thinks so, anyway. Suppose A is the statement "Today is Wednesday", and B is the statement "Lynet has five legs". We are given that A is false. According to the bottom two lines of the truth table this means that "A->B" is true. On the other hand, suppose today is Wednesday, and I do not have five legs. Now the truth table tells us that "A->B" is false.

Now, I know you can't see me over the internet, but I can assure you that I never have five legs. So the statement "If today is Wednesday, then Lynet has five legs" is true unless it is Wednesday, in which case it is false. Got that?

In mathematics, this version of "if . . . then" works fine, because things which are mathematically false stay false; things which are mathematically true stay true. However, in real life we often want to know what things would be like if they were different. If today was Wednesday, would I have five legs? This turns out to be a very different sort of question! An "if . . . then" statement is called a conditional statement. An "if . . . then" statement in which you are speaking of what would happen if something were true is called a counterfactual conditional statement.

Counterfactual conditional statements are pretty well impossible to put into formal logic. They seem to have an inextricable contextual component which makes them impossible to describe in a contextless, abstract way. Whereas the logical "A->B" doesn't require us to know anything about what A or B actually say, the statement "If A was true, B would be true" really needs context, and some idea of what A and B are, before we can use it. This is because we are speaking of some other possible (or sometimes impossible) world where A is true, and we need context and the elusive 'common sense' to tell us how much of the current world to imagine as changed before we consider whether B would be true in such a world. Consider the following exchange:

"If I had my cousin's money, I'd be a happy woman."

"If you had your cousin's money, you'd be in jail."

It's possible for both these statements to be true in some sense, even if the first speaker would most assuredly not be happy in jail! The first statement is considering a possible world in which the speaker both has her cousin's money, and has a legal right to her cousin's money. The second statement changes the world just enough that the first speaker would have her cousin's money, but does not change the fact that the first speaker has no legal right to her cousin's money. How much of the world do we change in evaluating this sort of statement? It depends on context. Sometimes it is obvious and sometimes it isn't. Either way, we can't substitute abstract As and Bs for the statements given. We need to know what is actually being said if we want to have any hope of deciding what is meant.

Counterfactual conditionals are, I would say, absolutely fundamental to human thought. However, the fact that they don't have an exact logical meaning means that they can interact with more logical ways of describing the world in an interesting fashion. For example, consider the question of free will. Most people would, I suspect, agree that we have free will in a situation if we could have acted differently. That's a counterfactual conditional right there, and the question of what free will means can twist in exactly the way that counterfactual conditionals do. For example, sometimes a person might say "I didn't have a choice about handing him my wallet -- the man had a knife to my throat!" Now technically, you could choose not to hand over your wallet. You could die instead if you wanted to. Of course, you'd lose the wallet anyway, so it would be a rather peculiar choice, which is why most people would accept that statement without a blink. The world where the wallet is taken from your dead body rather than given by you isn't considered as a relevant possibility when evaluating whether you could have acted differently.

Do we have some sort of 'free will' beyond the fact that we could act differently if we wanted to, counterfactually speaking? I find it hard to imagine how such a thing could work. That doesn't mean such a thing doesn't exist, of course, but I'll withhold belief until I'm given evidence and/or an accurate explanation of what such free will would actually mean.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Atheist PR

I'm late in on this one, I know. Forgive me; this week was not a good one to be flying out from the UK. Still, I just have to address this post from Matthew Nisbet. According to Nisbet, atheism isn't a civil rights issue; atheists in America just have a PR problem.

Well, I'm not going to get into the debate over what constitutes a civil rights issue, although I do think there are some cases where unfair discrimination has been clearly shown to exist (Ebonmuse has a good reply on that side of things). Instead, I'd like to comment on the PR problem itself.

I think it bears repeating that the original "PR problem" is hardly atheists' fault; religions are traditionally suspicious of outsiders, and atheism is about as 'outside' as you can get. Most of the myths that fundamentalists (and sometimes others) believe about atheism did not arise from the actions of any actual atheist.

Nisbet says that Dawkins and Harris are contributing to the atheist PR problem, presumably by being too strident. I'd be interested in the opinions of American theist commenters, there. If you've noticed the media attention to Dawkins and Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, how has it influenced your view of atheists? Do you think they are making it harder for atheism to be accepted by mainstream Americans?

I'd also like to say in defence of Dawkins et al that even if they are to some extent preaching to the choir, it's a choir that doesn't usually get preached to (for obvious reasons). I don't agree with everything they say (and, I confess, have yet to read a single one of their books), but -- well -- look at this. 59th minute, I'm sorry to say; it's in the question session when Richard Dawkins was reading at Randolph-Macon women's college in Lynchburg, Virginia. A woman asked "Is anger a common symptom of a person who is going through the deconditioning process from their parents religion?"

"I don't know," says Dawkins. There is a certain amount of laughter. "Um... ah... it had never occured to me. Um... does anybody else have personal... um...." More laughter. "Um, I -- I think, sort of, fear is probably more common, and I mean fear of -- of what their parents are going to think, rather than anger, but I could be wrong, um, I'm -- I'm interested in that. If that question is based on personal experience I'd be interested to hear more." Turning to the audience: "Is that a common experience?"

"Yes." From several voices.

"Wow." Dawkins has to check: "Anger on the part of the person who is undergoing the deconversion themselves?"

"Yeah." In chorus.

"Anger against whom, or what?"

A slight pause, then lots of voices, but it's the woman with the microphone who we can hear clearly: "The entire process, having all the clergy people and authority figures push this as a norm which was anathema to the trials of reason."

See? This is important. "Is it normal...?" Atheists have to be able to ask questions like that. They have to be able to come together, to feel they're not alone. And I get the distinct impression that in America that can be difficult. In raising the profile of atheism, Dawkins, Harris and others are doing important work, and I don't think the picture they paint is so negative as to negate that.

Nisbet's statement almost seems to imply that atheists should shut up and keep their heads down. If so, he's wrong. I'm right behind Dawkins' statement that atheists in America need to make themselves known. Not militantly, for the most part. N0t confrontationally unless confrontation is an unavoidable part of calmly stating ones atheism. But not apologetically, either. And in the public sphere, there's room for atheist criticism of religion. Writing books, giving speeches at which attendance is entirely optional, and appearing on TV are all fairly innocuous ways of presenting ones position, to my mind.

Just as long as we stop short of knocking on doors asking "Have you denied the holy spirit yet?" ;-)