Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It's written in the stars

Member of Parliament David Tredinnick is fast becoming a target for ridicule since he "came out" at the recent Glastonbury festival and announced that he thinks Astrology would be a good complement to real medicine and if used widely would reduce the burden on the NHS, a view that he confirmed in a BBC interview. Tredinnick is well known for his views on pseudo-science, being a fan of Homoeopathy and herbalism, in the immortal words of Tim Minchin we already have a term for "alternative medicine" that has been proven to actually work it's called "medicine". If you're looking for a succinct and humorous response to this silly man then look no further than the good Beaker folk over in Husborne Crawley.

Astrology is of course complete poppycock (to use a scientific term); anthropomorphic nonsense invented at a time when our species didn't even know that the Earth revolved around the Sun. In fact, in 3000 BC, when Astrology was invented (approx.) we didn't even know what stars and planets were let alone how they influence our chances of meeting tall dark strangers or developing irritable bowels. It's quaint how ancient peoples used their imaginations make up stories to explain things that were, in their era, otherwise inexplicable. Coincidently I've been away on holiday with my family for the last couple of weeks and one of the places we visited was Yosemite national park in California, USA (highly recommended!). One night we attended a talk on the stars. We joined a group of other tourists and all went out into an empty meadow, lay on our backs and looked up at the night sky.

The night sky in Yosemite is staggering (see picture below), the light pollution is practically zero and the sky was clear enough to see the milky way (something really hard to see in the populated SE of England).

The talk was fairly simplistic (from a science point of view) and slightly "new-age" in that the presenter focused on many of the myths and legends about the constellations from the Greeks to the Romans through to more modern interpretations from native Americans, all very poetic and quaint but in terms of utility complete poppycock (Ursa Major is a grizzly bear with a saddle - really?). Like Astrology, which rests upon such ancient stories, they are of no use whatsoever in predicting the future or assisting in healthcare, if they were we'd all be mega-rich and living to 200 by now. 

The coolest thing about the talk (apart from the view itself) was that our presenter used a powerful green laser to point out various objects in the sky, I'd never seen this done before and it was really impressive. What became clear to any reasonable person listening was that the universe is vast beyond our everyday comprehension and Science, specifically Cosmology, has allowed us to understand an unprecedented amount about what it's all made of and how it works, a truly awe inspiring feat bearing in mind that pretty much everything we see is beyond our ability to study directly because it's too far away. The real poetry and power of our appreciation of the stars is in our ability to reason about what we observe and figure out what is really going on and not simply fantasize about them. The fact that we are all made from atoms forged in the nuclear furnaces of stars like the ones we see in the night sky means that we are all inextricably and directly linked to the universe and unlike our general fascination with dot-to-dot puzzles this is, in some sense, a truly "spiritual" fact about us. I'd call it a "spiritual fact" not because it's in any way supernatural but because it transcends our individual, petty, parochial needs and disagreements and gives us all a kinship that if we took more care to understand might make our brief existence more fulfilling and relegate our reliance on the various "imagined" crutches of destiny, Gods and spirits in the sky to the past. Of course there's plenty that we don't understand yet about our Universe, dark energy for instance, but for some of us that's a positive thing, a challenge, something to aim for, real purpose. So, rather than filling these voids with childish imaginings of giant animals in the sky we should relish our opportunity to discover reality, and put aside childish things.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday factoid

If this illustration makes you feel slightly uneasy then you are exceptionally rational; most of your fellow Sapiens believe that the whole universe was crafted especially for them...

Monday, July 07, 2014

It's not just me that thinks that..

Writing a blog is quite an interesting experience, you never quite know whether what you've written makes sense to other people or if you're so far off wandering the fertile valleys of your own version of "la la land" that even the trolls and nutters are narrowing their eyes in bafflement. I read a story today about a complaint against the BBC being upheld over an interview they did on the today program that pitted the intellectual viewpoints on climate change between a leading climate scientist and Nigel Lawson. The complaint was that this paring promoted a "false balance" between an actual expert and someone being paid by vested interests to take a contrary view. I am pleased to discover that I noted exactly the same problem when I first saw the program back in February and blogged about it at the time. Such insignificant actions in pointing out anti-science, anti-evidence lobbying may not solve the problem of man-made climate change but at least I can conclude that senility has not quite set in just yet.

Different similarities

The problem with complex evolved human brains is that two people can look at the same scene and interpret it in two entirely different ways depending on the particular wiring of their respective neural networks; as determined by genetics, upbringing and education etc. Brains are "plastic" like this, they develop in an infinite number of subtle ways and even the exact same input stimuli (sights, sounds, smells etc.) prompt entirely different responses, no two brains are the same. More often than not this variation is something to be celebrated and enjoyed, after all, it's the basis of creativity and learning to which our greatest achievements as a species can be attributed.

However, when it comes to deciding important policy that affect other people's lives in significant ways it's clearly desirable (from the perspective of the people the decisions affect) for decision makers to approach the evaluation of the options from an objective perspective rather than a subjective one. Unfortunately, that's a hard thing for evolved brains to do and requires significant effort and training; shedding our biases even for a short while is difficult. Sometimes deeply held views can seem so concrete, so immovable and so compelling that not only would people rather die than abandon them, they would also rather die than simply examine them critically. Even people who claim to be "rational" often fail to grasp this basic human trait, they don't (and are often unable to) see themselves as others see them. Facts and ideas become blurred and interchangeable, in-groups become intellectual echo chambers that simply reinforce established dogmas, and nothing from the outside can penetrate and influence.

Take a look at the picture above, two people who are genetically related and almost certainly share more traits and behaviours than they are probably even aware of. Both love their mum and dad, feel pain, digest food, appreciate beauty, fancy Justin Bieber, bleed red when cut and both would claim that their positions are rational and "true". Yet for the rest of us in theological no man's land these two intellectual positions remain diametrically opposed; two people who may even think that they would rather kill or die than abandon their deeply held beliefs.

Then imagine being an alien crossing the vast expanse of space for a million years to land on Earth with no pre-knowledge about any of the historical, cultural or theocratic underpinnings of these two world-views.

Could they tell the difference?

Summer listening

I'm thoroughly enjoying the new Linkin Park album at the moment, a welcome return for them to the distinct sound of their early ground breaking work (like Hybrid Theory) IMO. A fusion of throat grabbing guitar riffs, punk-like energy, an electronic backdrop overlayed with rap, thrash as well as more conventional lyrical delivery; featuring Chester Bennington banging out some ultra-high-emotion vocals (how that guy doesn't burst his vocal chords I don't know) It all sounds chaotic but works surprisingly well if you run with it. Some familiar themes covered, war, death, morality and rebellion, all good, solid rock and roll fayre. Particular favourites would include "Guilty all the same", "Wastelands" and "A line in the sand", no real lemons.

Don't bother with Coldplay get this instead; if you want more moshing (and interest) in your summer soundtrack that is.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Friday smirk

Who says that all miracles ceased when we invented cameras...

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Chalk meets cheese

One of the topics that regularly interests me sufficiently to create a blog post or two is the divisiveness of religion. The fact that, as a species, we seem hell bent on dividing ourselves up into ever more balkanised groups by creating and following intellectual positions based on nothing more than stories is fascinating and scary at the same time; a majority of people on our planet seem to need to identify with a particular sect or tradition and there may well be sound evolutionary reasons for doing it (particularly when you look at the benefits for the in-groups). We can observe this process going on all around us, all the time, ever more splintered and pedantic shards of ideas popping up and becoming recombined in different assortments wherever people gather together and tell their children stories. Sadly, it's one of the top reasons for suffering and conflict in the world, you need only look as far as Protestant v. Catholic, Jew v. Muslim, Sunni v. Shia, Sinhalese Buddhist v. Hindu Tamil ad infinitum to see that people love to be tribal.

Religion isn't the only cause of tribalism of course, I was reminded of this last week whilst watching the Glastonbury festival on TV. The headline act on Saturday night this year was a little band called Metallica, a heavy metal group that have been hammering out head-banging riffs since the early 80's and have risen to the top (30th overall in terms of record sales) of the heap to become a global brand. Glastonbury is supposedly an all inclusive event, the organisers take every opportunity to make this point, i.e. that every shade and flavour of musical taste is represented. The small flaw in this inclusive vision has been that over the 40 odd years the festival has been running the list has never included a heavy metal band, until now. Like women voting and eating prawns on a Friday apparently the inclusion of this band in the line up was "controversial" to some festival fans; a clear contradiction that eerily mirrors the contradiction in religions like Christianity and Islam that preach inclusive things like "God loves everyone", and then discriminate against gay people or people of the "wrong" gender, the evidence is that tribes tend not to encourage inclusiveness.

Metallica are huge and certainly don't need Glastonbury, in fact you could argue that in reality it was the opposite, i.e. Glastonbury needed Metallica. The interest and publicity generated from the billing must certainly have done the festival PR efforts no harm at all. In the end the band were superb; regardless of whether people like the genre or not, it would be hard to deny the professionalism, musicianship and showmanship they delivered; long standing fans were not surprised. The more interesting facet of the event for me were the responses afterwards. The next day I read a number of reviews and monitored the twitter feed, the comments could be divided into three distinct camps, the fans (I include myself in that group) loved it; that group used words like loud, indulgent and unapologetic (in a positive way). Then there were the people who hated it, they said things like loud, indulgent and unapologetic (in a negative way); then there were the people who had their minds changed, they said things like "not as bad as I was expecting", "pleasantly surprised", "might even buy one of their albums now" and so on. In general the positive outweighed the negative by a healthy margin. Some people will never be fans, that's clear, but a lot more people had their eyes opened to new potential; all of which is great for the band, great for the genre and also great for the festival, a win-win-win you could say.

I'm sure there are valuable lessons in inclusiveness, tolerance and open-mindedness for all of us here; I only wish that instead of kidnapping and killing each others children in the name of ancient stories and mythical promises, people in some parts of the world would just stop for a minute, extract their heads from their arses and listen to the beat and rhythm of the other side for a while, who knows where that might lead.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Bootstrapped morality

Theists often use the argument that without some kind of super-being (invariably their own particular Deity) there could not be Human morality and we'd all be running around raping and murdering each other; after all, if there's no God then where do we get our sense of right and wrong from?

For atheists this question seems to have a simple and frankly obvious answer, i.e. we get it from ourselves, the thinking goes something like this.

Evolution equipped us (over time) with a basic set of "rules of thumb" that enabled the successful survival of tribes of social primates, if we hadn't thrived then we simply wouldn't now be discussing it. Over time and in recent history our development of "cultures" has sculpted all of the various refinements, deletions and additions to this basic set, particularly the religious dimension of culture. So, we would contend that although religion has certainly refined and influenced our morality over the years, it did not originate it. The reason I conclude this is simply an examination of the evidence, i.e. look around, the world is exactly as you would expect if this hypothesis were true and exactly NOT how your would expect if there were a single Deity dictating objective morality from on-high. There are some simple, self-evident facts that support this idea, for example over time our view of morality changes, we no longer think it's OK to keep slaves whereas years ago we did. Different cultures develop subtly different ideas of what is moral, usually conforming to parochial power struggles and practical geographical needs. Human beings develop very similar ideas about morality even when they are isolated from each other, many indigenous peoples in remote parts of the world have very similar ideas to Christians, Jews and Muslims about things like stealing; despite knowing nothing of the existence of those religions.

This is not a new argument or a new viewpoint of course, many philosophers and theologians have debated the ins and outs of where morality comes from for millennia, but for a lot of people the concept of subjective morality seems to be an intellectual road-block, they just can't grasp it without the idea of a celestial dictatorship entering into the frame somehow. I came across the following photograph the other day which made me think about how the concept might be explained to such people, I think it fits the atheist viewpoint (and our experience of reality) particularly well.