Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Jackie's Nether Depilatory

Critical thinking skills are so badly needed by so many people, especially now. While it may be asking too much for the average person to display them at every opportunity, I don't think I'm asking too much for our politicians and other policy decision-makers to do this. (Of course, they're elected by the average person, so maybe I'm wrong here.) Regardless, the state of our culture today, with nationalism, populism, "fake-news" and "alternative facts" has made critical thinking more important than ever before.

Of course, none of us can actually verify every fact we hold as true. We simply do not have the time, and even if we did, we do not have the expertise. At some point, one must resort to argumentum ad verecundiam, at least in our own minds. Of course, the argument from authority primarily deals with citing an "expert" for something outside their area of expertise. Still, two physicists may disagree on a matter of physics. Argumentum ad populum is commonly used to resolve this, but that is also fallacious. But what choice do you have? Even if you happen to be a physicist, there are countless other areas of expertise you have no qualifications to judge. We are social beings, and our incredible advancement means none of us know everything: we must resort to trust, at some point.

Sometimes it is not obvious to us whom to trust when looking at competing hypotheses. It is at this point, the liberal use of certain philosophical razors can help us. A philosophical razor helps us quickly eliminate unlikely scenarios. It's of note that no such razor is universally correct - but in the absence of personal expertise  and time to investigate, they will steer you away from bad choices in facts, most of the time. The most common of these is Occam's Razor: Choose the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions. There are many others, though. 

My personal favorites:


Alder's RazorIf something cannot be settled by experiment or observation, then it is not worthy of debate. (Also known as "Newton's Flaming Laser Sword" - this gets rid of so many discussions that are simply not worth having or considering.)
Hanlon's RazorNever attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. (This gets rid of most hypotheses that require conspiracy. There is some difficulty in sourcing this commonly cited razor, it may actually be Heinlein's Razor: Do not attribute villainy to conditions simply resulting from stupidity.)
Hitchens' RazorThat which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. (I hope this one catches on. Hitchens was a visionary.)
Popper's PrincipleFor a theory to be considered, it must be falsifiable. (This is the best way of dealing with superstition. "What would, in your estimation, prove your idea wrong?" If your answer is "nothing," then you're almost certainly wrong.)

Run every idea everyone ever presents you through these razors. If an idea conflicts with one, well, consider if it's worth investigating further. Maybe you can find proof of the assumptions and Occam's Razor no longer applies. Maybe you can think of an experiment or observation to help prove it. Occasionally there actually is malice. Find evidence of it. Maybe the person making the assertion hasn't looked hard enough to find evidence yet. But probably - you can simply move on to another idea that has been better thought out.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Liberal Helping of Sanity

As a Canadian, I am always surprised by the fact that despite having four viable federal parties across Canada, I am always still picking the least offensive to me when I vote, rather than feeling like there is a party that truly embodies my values. In the USA, with only two parties, I imagine most voters feel trapped in a choice between "Dumb and Dumber" - or worse. I've always felt like both Democrat and Republican platforms are both utterly unacceptable. Maybe I am a centrist and America has no place for anyone not at the extreme polar ends of the scale? No, that couldn't be it. After all, neither Republican nor Democrat really represent extremes in anything other than fiscal irresponsibility and pandering to corporate special interests.  Besides, my views are hardly centrist on many things. Many of them are rather polarizing. They just don't fit into a package where they polarize the same group of people the same way.

So then a friend of mine recently suggested that certain dominant elements in the American "Political Left" are no longer "Liberals," but instead are simply "Left-Wing Conservatives." This gave me something of a political epiphany. You might be confused as to the meaning of his statement, but one only needs to look at the definition of Liberal to understand:

Liberal ˈlib(ə)rəl, adj: 1. open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.

Liberalism is absolutely required in politics. It is the mechanism for pushing for necessary change. It is the motivator for progress. This doesn't make it superior to Conservatism -- which is the opposite force. Not all change is good, not all new behaviors or opinions are worth looking at, and not all values should be discarded.  These two political forces in balance lead to a healthy dialogue where advantageous changes are implemented, but poorly thought out ones are placed on the shelf. These tendencies have nothing to do with the "right" or "left" side of politics. A hardline communist (leftist) in Soviet Russia would have been conservative, while Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika were extremely liberal - despite leading Russia further toward the right side of the political spectrum. 

My friend is absolutely right - Liberalism is what's missing in modern political discourse. The entrenched ideologue is about as extreme a Conservative position as one can take. Increasingly, people identify with a particular party or ideology as part of who they are. This means they can't be open minded toward alternative ideas or views without compromising their very identity - and so society moves toward more and more conservative attitudes. You just have competing conservatives, left vs. right, unable to come to any sort of agreement.

And suddenly I know why I feel so disillusioned with political parties across the board. 

I am liberal. 

This is not a political view. This is my personal tendency to want to try new ideas, discard old values. My near anarchist-distrust for authority and tradition certainly feeds into this, and suddenly I can't find many people of any political persuasion that I feel look at the world the same way I do. We need more liberal forces within politics; forces that do not demonize ideas simply for being different than their platform, forces that do not try to silence dissent or criticism of other idealogies that they feel are somehow protected from criticism. Give me back open and rational discourse, and let us set aside inflexible and unassailable party doctrines.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Intoxicating Vanity

“You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity. Let me tell you about our planet. Earth is four-and-a-half-billion-years-old. There's been life on it for nearly that long, 3.8 billion years. Bacteria first; later the first multicellular life, then the first complex creatures in the sea, on the land. Then finally the great sweeping ages of animals, the amphibians, the dinosaurs, at last the mammals, each one enduring millions on millions of years, great dynasties of creatures rising, flourishing, dying away -- all this against a background of continuous and violent upheaval. Mountain ranges thrust up, eroded away, cometary impacts, volcano eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving, an endless, constant, violent change, colliding, buckling to make mountains over millions of years. Earth has survived everything in its time. It will certainly survive us. If all the nuclear weapons in the world went off at once and all the plants, all the animals died and the earth was sizzling hot for a hundred thousand years, life would survive, somewhere: under the soil, frozen in Arctic ice. Sooner or later, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would spread again. The evolutionary process would begin again. It might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety. Of course, it would be very different from what it is now, but the earth would survive our folly, only we would not. If the ozone layer gets thinner, ultraviolet radiation sears the earth, so what? Ultraviolet radiation is good for life. It's powerful energy. It promotes mutation, change. Many forms of life will thrive with more UV radiation. Many others will die out. Do you think this is the first time that's happened? Think about oxygen. Necessary for life now, but oxygen is actually a metabolic poison, a corrosive gas, like fluorine. When oxygen was first produced as a waste product by certain plant cells some three billion years ago, it created a crisis for all other life on earth. Those plants were polluting the environment, exhaling a lethal gas. Earth eventually had an atmosphere incompatible with life. Nevertheless, life on earth took care of itself. In the thinking of the human being a hundred years is a long time. A hundred years ago we didn't have cars, airplanes, computers or vaccines. It was a whole different world, but to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can't imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven't got the humility to try. We've been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we're gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.”


 ~ Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (by Dr. Michael Crichton)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Strutting and fretting my hour upon the stage...

Time is not a flow. The past is not gone, the future is not yet to come. Science has proven that time is just another coordinate, like lattitude and longitude. "Space-time" is a thing, time and space are not separate. This means that death is not an end. Death is a boundary. Birth and death are two coordinates that determine when a person exists. They exist -- we all exist -- where and when we live. Nothing is ever lost.

 I wrote those words nine months ago. Nine months of perceived time squandered; exactly two hundred and seventy days -- are they lost to the ravages of time?

I don't believe so. When writing the words above, I envisioned time as like the boundary of the surface of a table; just because the table has edges, does not mean it no longer exists.

This begs the question, however, why do we perceive time the way we do? Does it matter if everything exists, excuse the term -- language is so limited by our temporal experience -- "simultaneously," if all we perceive is one moment after another? If time is just another definition to our existence, a boundary limitation, how is it that the seconds flow into hours into days and all our yesterdays fade, while the future is never clear?

Logic can answer this question, so simply, and so elegantly, in one word:

Causality.

Causality is the relationship between two events, known simply as cause and effect. I described a table, above, but as far as our memory is concerned, time is a slightly different flat surface. Time may not be a flow, but causality is, and it only flows in one direction, turning this from a boundary on a table to a boundary on a river. Oh, the entire river exists between two points, but causality flows between those two points nonetheless. In fact, perhaps a better analogy than a river or a table is an ocean. The entire ocean exists between its shores, no matter where in the ocean you are. And yet causality moves through the ocean - like waves, but moving only in one direction. If the universe were an electronic circuit, causality is the great diode.

That's enough simplistic analogies. Let's apply them.

Events in the now imprint on our neurons, causing synaptic patterns we know colloquially as memories. As you look at your memories at a different point in time, new memory patterns have formed caused by subsequent events. Likewise, older memories have faded, caused by the actions of biological functions on the imperfect record-keeping of our gray matter. At no point have future events already inscribed themselves on our memories. And so, like a script in a play, at whichever point you begin reading, it reads the same. Mercutio will always invoke Queen Mab if you start in act 1, scene 4, but if you start in act 3, scene 1, he will always suffer Tybalt's blade the same way. And yet, at whichever point of the play you begin reading, Romeo & Juliet still exists in its entirety. If you go back and read act 1, scene 4 again, Mercutio's monologue does not change to reflect his impending demise, the play remains whole and intact.

Causality preserves the illusion of time flow. All points in our existence simply exist, but some consequence yet hanging in the stars remains a mystery to us -- at no point do you remember the future, and what's past is prologue, eventually fading like an ember in our ever shifting present. We do not, in our limited perception, have the option of being the reader and turning back the page. The play's the thing, and we are just the poor players, dramatis personæ, always reading the same lines depending which scene is being read. Perhaps the Bard was a bit more of a visionary than he knew.

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Trap of Religion

Camille Paglia, a woman I respect for her sex-positive approach to feminism, recently said something stupid. We all say stupid things, every one of us, so I'm not going to villify Paglia for this. However, I'm going to freely criticize the content of what she said, because she's a public figure with a widely read soapbox (unlike myself), and her words need to be scrutinized for truth if you're considering using them for the basis of an opinion.

Camille, an atheist, herself, in an interview with Salon.com, said of great thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens:

I regard them as adolescents. I say in the introduction to my last book, “Glittering Images”, that “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination."

 Oh, my. Camille, Camille. Where do I start? Are you going to argue that sneering at political philosophies is juvenile and symptomatic of a stunted imagination, too?

The simple fact is - some ideas are wrong.  Some ideas are harmful.  I know there are people who opine that everyone's beliefs and ideals are valid, of equal merit, deserving of respect, but that's horeshit. At the risk of invoking Godwin's law, remember, National Socialism was a set of beliefs and ideals - practically a religion of its own. You can argue about the great works of art inspired by religion, certainly. (I'd love to, actually, but not here, that's another topic.) You can argue about the works of charity religions have performed, and make the occasional good point, but you cannot argue against the harm religion has caused throughout all of human history. All religion. We're not talking about a few extremists that don't represent religion as a whole. We know that people shooting up cartoonists or blowing up children at bus stops are a problem. But if we say "exposure to some forms of radiation is unhealthy for humans," we're not just talking about nuclear weapons. Religion as a whole is altogether poisonous to modern human society and freedoms.

At their core, all religions - whether you're talking about those based on Judaeo-Christian backgrounds, or eastern religions like Buddhism, teach that we are fundamentally flawed, imperfect... that our flesh, our emotions, are somehow an obstacle we must overcome to reach some kind of enlightenment/salvation/forgiveness. They teach us shame in our humanity, they teach us that we as a species need some kind of outside help.

The reality is, life is a struggle. More than 99% of all species that have ever lived on this rock have been extinct longer than humans have even existed. Life on earth has survived many mass-extinctions - asteroid strikes (one of which was big enough to have formed our moon), supervolcanoes, climate change, tectonic shifts, gamma ray bursts... and yet you and I are here, reading this. Savage, naked apes who crawled down from the trees taught ourselves language, art, engineering, medicine, altruism  - surviving all manner of disasters and ending up at the very top of the evolutionary ladder of this planet, and we have only ourselves to credit for this. God didn't help us. Religion certainly didn't - it hindered us every step of the way, and it still does. Religion has taught us to be ashamed of our humanity - that we need saving. The Christian bible derides human wisdom and teaches us to not rely on ourselves - to not trust ourselves - that we are evil and flawed and only God can help direct us in the right way. Science has found that these teachings have a real, detrimental effect on people's intelligence and ability to function in society. And yet somehow, parents think indoctrinating our children in these horrible myths is the duty of any good parent.

No, Camille. It is not juvenile to try to steer society away from religion. It is not juvenile to try to help our species escape this trap that has enslaved us for all of recorded history. Finally, humanity is on the cusp of escaping slavery to superstition. You have escaped it yourself. Please do not, by your words, discourage any other part of humanity from doing the same. If you want imagination, imagine a species that takes pride in who and what we are, celebrate our humanity and discard all those arrogant imaginary gods and the artificial limitations they have imposed on us.

Jackie's Nether Depilatory

Critical thinking skills are so badly needed by so many people, especially now. While it may be asking too much for the average person to di...