Saturday, 24 December 2011


the chainless links
I have a friend who objects my use of reason as a way of understanding life. I think he finds it constraining and possibly unnatural. I've always had something of a scientific bent though and I find reason a useful way of 'getting a handle' on things. What I think a few people I've met over the years dislike about science and rational philosophy though is the arrogance they perceive in it - as if by taking it all apart we can define it and 'own' it (and then use and sell it), murdering to dissect, as the man said.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Why We Fight

20100652 Winter Solstice 21 Dec
This last week I've been exasperated in much the same way by both Claire Tomalin and Christopher Hitchens - the former this morning on Start the Week, the latter on The Today Programme last week as part of a tribute following his death.
The discussion this morning was sparked by Canon Giles Fraser (who as you may remember had to resign because of his support for the demonstrators outside St Paul's) talking about Christian morality and what it has to say about excessive wealth. Tomalin (author of the recent biography of Dickens) piped up with that dreary old saw about how such morals are 'impossible' because human nature is set by biology and evolution which favours competition and aggression. It is natural and therefore right, she says, to have children and to do anything to help them get ahead.
So we shouldn't even try to do good? Is that what she's saying? We shouldn't even bother. Because it's impossible to overturn this fact of evolution and human biology, morality is impossible. Give up. Forget it.

Hitchens' point was similar. He was talking about his long-running arguments with his brother Peter. Peter was described as coming from a utopian left-wing background, which Christopher took to have been utterly discredited. There's no point, he concluded, in trying to change the world because the world is not perfectible. Utopia is impossible.
So does that mean we shouldn't do anything to improve matters? No regulations, no laws, no intervening to relieve the suffering and injustice? No, because it'll never be perfect. Best to give up. It's how the world is. Life's not fair. Grow up.

My first inclination is to lunge at the patronising self-satisfied common-sense that I suspect underlies both their views. I don't suppose they had or have much to worry about in life and any intervention by do-gooder bleeding-heart lefties is only likely to disrupt their comfortable life-styles, if only in a small way, but I don't know either of them personally and I shouldn't be so quick to judge.

My second response is to wonder at how such weak and sloppy thinking passes as learning or journalism on a forum as generally serious and thoughtful as Radio 4.
The point of morality, or idealism in the second case, is not, as they seem to imagine, to set up Heaven on Earth. This would be, as Hitchens rightly says, a discredited philosophy. Did the Soviets or the Maoists ever really believe in it? Nobody really thinks that way now except the radical Free-Marketeers ('If only we could get rid of the regulation' they say, 'the government, the taxes... With currently undreamed-of technological advances there would be growth and development and prosperity for all. There is no alternative. It's the end of history...')
No - the point of idealism and morality is not to somehow build an ideal world where nothing horrible ever happens. There is no point at which we win and everything is lovely. There will always be greed and brutality and cynicism. Of course there will. But we don't fight these things because we think one day we will beat them. The fight is on-going. It never ends. We keep at it because we fear that if we don't it will get even worse.

But surely, you say, it's all a matter of opinion. Morality is all about personal interests when it comes down to it. Ok, maybe the world heating up and the oceans flooding most of the cities and cultivable land looks bad but balance it against all these people who are forced to live in rented accommodation or can't afford new trainers for their children? Don't they need jobs fracking shale and clearing forests or what have you? It's all relative. In fact surely these leftie do-gooders are just another kind of totalitarianism - imposing their moral choices on the rest of us?
Listening to the issues that get into news, deciding what should be done about the financial crisis or climate change can look like it's anyone's guess but it's different if we're talking about, for example, something like child abuse. Child abuse might even be 'natural' in an evolutionary sense but nearly everyone is against it. It's not 'all relative'. What's more, presumably there will always be child abuse but the idea that we should therefore just let it happen is unthinkable.
So what is the difference? On the one hand we have a child down the street with an appalling home life because her father can't control his temper and on the other a child dying of entirely preventable disease in Africa because other people are hogging all the resources. Both happen because of human action (or negligence). One is more complex than the other (in the sense that in the second case there's no one person you can easily lay the blame on) but both are caused by decisions we humans make, and cannot be excused as 'just the way the world is'. Perhaps I suffer from an excess of empathy but they don't actually seem very different to me at all. Could it be that in fact Hitchens' and Tomalin's view of the futility of morality and idealism is just that it's all a bit too complicated? And isn't that actually a bit weak when it comes down to it?

My third response is just a sadness that so many people do seem to agree with them, if only by default. This lazy 'realism' is published and broadcast which gives it a kind of authority, and it quickly comes to seem like there's nothing to be done.

So although I'm far from Christian myself and have no simple set of commandments to offer, can my seasonal appeal to anyone who happens to read this be that we not give up on doing good for good's sake, but at least keep on thinking about it, and discussing it, and to trying to do better than our worst?

Happy Midwinter

Friday, 18 November 2011

A Working Hypothesis

I don't know if there's a handy layman's term for the kind of argument that is impossible to prove wrong, even when it probably is. In science such hypotheses are known as unfalsifiable. They might conceivably be right but there's just no way of telling. Bertrand Russell's teapot is the famous philosophical example. In ordinary everyday usage though I've found it almost impossible to come up with a not-too-lengthy but convincing way of explaining what I mean. This is especially troubling because almost everyone I know has some sort of Russell's Teapot in their lives and most of them would be lost without it. I've started collecting them.

I joined Facebook recently, against my better judgement and ostensibly to promote my books and nursery. An artist friend of mine told me I should be 'Schmoozing' more and that FB is a good way to do it, but I find I'm not the schmoozing kind. Still I've had some nice catch-up conversations with long-lost friends so all is not lost. One of these friends is a self-confessed conspiracy-nut and it's always interesting to get into 'debates' with him. I'll maybe talk more about him later but one contributor on his 'Wall' commented gnomically "...but the inner eye or intuition always knows the truth..."
I wanted to scream - What? How do you know? What the hell are you on about? So are you saying people never misunderstand things? Not if they use The Inner Eye. But their intuition must sometimes get things wrong. Then they can't have used The Inner Eye correctly.
Unfalsifiable.There's no way of showing whether this Inner Eye exists or not, or if it does what he claims it does. It's existence and infallibility are consistent with any state of affairs. You can't disprove it. It's an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Another famous one is 'God moves in mysterious ways', variations of which are used by the religious to justify the fact that awful things happen to good people. Nothing is inconsistent with God's love and omniscience. There is no valid counter-evidence. God is love.
It might be argued that "God moves in mysterious ways" and "the inner eye always knows the truth" are not hypotheses but articles of faith, but this does not prevent them being trotted out in otherwise rational debates. They're a sort of unanswerable get-out-of-jail-free card for the believer. The fact that I have no answer (or only a very convoluted one) is taken to mean that I've lost.
So I want a quick and pithy aphorism to stick into the debate at that point just to point out that, while they are of course free to believe what they like, they can't use that sort of argument in a rational debate. Otherwise anyone could just say any old thing and there'd be no point trying to have a debate in the first place.
Karma is another one - You lead a blameless life and something horrible happens - Well you must have done something to deserve it. Positive thinking - If you want something enough it'll happen. But I did really want it, and it didn't happen. Well you can't have really really wanted it or it would have happened.

I can see why people like these Unfalsifiables. They can be invoked when a sense of order or justice seems to be lacking in the world, or as an explanation for the inexplicable. They're a guard against uncertainty and chaos. The friend I mentioned above likes to think of himself as very rational and even anti-religious (As he likes to remind us all, he has a physics degree) but at base I suspect his preoccupation with conspiracies is a search for order in what he sees as an evil world. He may have rejected God but that hasn't stopped him believing in the Devil. It does at least give him something to go up against. Some of the conspiracies, once argued through, require such extraordinary powers of organisation and mind-control that the only recourse is to use them as evidence for some immense global (possibly alien) super-power. Hence David Icke and the Illuminati. (More Unfalsifiables.)

The whole spiritual/religious edifice is a mesh of Unfalsifiables. Heaven gives comfort when a loved one dies, Hell, a sense of justice. Souls and spirits explain away the incongruities of consciousness and personality (and life-after-death). You don't have to blame yourself if your children go astray if you can put it down to them just being born that way. Fate and Destiny likewise. It just wasn't meant to be, say the hippies.
I want to include Common Sense and Categorical Imperatives here too. On the one hand, Common Sense is invoked as the self-evident normal way to do things. It is not questioned where this 'sense' comes from. It's just the way it's done, they way they've always been done. Likewise there are things that are simply not done. End of subject. Categorical Imperatives are commandments from on high for the atheist. You simply don't do that sort of thing around here.
God of course is the biggest Unfalsifiable of the lot. He conveniently explains everything away. No need to think at all if you don't feel like it. You just use your infallible Inner Eye and there He is. More than anything, Unfalsifiables mean there's a lot of things you don't have to think about. They're just given. They mean you can relax and get on with the important things in life, like shopping, and looking cool..

I want to say a bit about Belief here. I recommended a book a few posts back called Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz, which is generally excellent but which makes the mistake, I think, of using the word 'belief' way too broadly, and she's not alone. She uses it to cover all sorts of human cerebral activity including ideas, assumptions, observations, theories... I think this is horribly misleading but not unusual. I've thought a lot about this and have come up with at least four distinct meanings of the word.

First up - there are the kind of beliefs people have despite the fact (or indeed because of the fact) that there is no material evidence or rational explanation for them - things like God, Heaven, The Inner Eye, Karma. Such beliefs are an assertion of a personal conviction that something is so, irrespective of what anyone else says. We tend to talk of 'Believing In' such things. Having Faith is a similar sort of idea.

This is very different to what the scientist means when she says 'I believe in Evolution'. I prefer not to use the word 'believe' like this because I think it's very misleading but in this case the strength of the 'belief' results from the strength of the material evidence and rational explanation. What she's saying is she thinks she has very good reason to think the theory of evolution is true. She thinks the evidence is strong and the logic sound but like any scientific hypothesis it could in due course be radically modified or falsified completely. This is sometimes described as 'Believing That' something is the case and has nothing to do with Faith.
If you want to see the difference, try transposing a religious assertion into scientific language:
'I believe that my redeemer liveth, given the available evidence, but further work is needed.'
That's just not faith.

Thirdly, there is the way people 'believe in' something as a kind of assertion of hope and trust. You might say you believe in your marriage, or the UN or human nature. It's partly based on past experience, but is also about optimism. You feel they've been trustworthy in the past and you'd like to believe they won't let you down in the future, but you can never be sure. Anyway there'll definitely be no future in your marriage unless you believe in it to some extent. Again, you could just as easily say you 'have Faith' in it.

Fourthly I think there's a sort of common sense, taken-for-granted sort of belief where we just assume things about the world because it's never occurred to us to think otherwise. This may include anything from simply 'knowing' that tables and chairs are solid and not made up mainly of empty space, that Jesus loves you and that wearing sandals with socks is just plain wrong. Mostly we're not even aware of these kinds of beliefs until someone challenges them.

Needless to say people use these meanings almost interchangeably a lot of the time. Religious people believe in God in all four ways. Sometimes they like to try using material evidence but when that doesn't work their faith is strengthened by the lack of same. Ultimately they tend to fall back on hope and trust. For many uneducated people it never occurs to them to doubt.

Some people see science as a belief system in the first sense, but in fact it is a system based on Working Assumptions, or it should be. There are scientists who cling to their theories like articles of religious faith or express a 'belief in' them because otherwise no one will take them seriously but this is not what science is about. The most profound assumptions in science are ones like the assumption that you can usefully apply maths and logic to physical phenomena - that it is useful to measure and count things, add them up and average them and put your results on a graph. It also assumes that physical principals do not just arbitrarily vary from place to place. A mile in Jo'berg is assumed to be the same as a mile in London. Causality is generally assumed to hold true. Birth does not cause conception, except in a very roundabout way. Further, science only takes into account physical forces and objects - it assumes there are no spirits or Gods working in the background arbitrarily manipulating your experiments.
There is no a priori reason why any of these assumptions should hold true. They just seem to work, and have done for a very long time. They produce useful results and predictions. It may not seem like this when we are confronted with the sheer extravagance of The Search for the God Particle or the apparent inanity of Dark Energy, or the controversies about Climate Change or Vaccination, but those are at the outer edge of scientific understanding and almost necessarily beyond most of us. Normal science builds satellites and mobile phones and cochlear implants and whatever one may think about those things they definitely work (most of the time). This is because the working assumptions behind them (maths, causality, and without divine intervention) hold up. As soon as they no longer do so (once they are falsified) they will be discarded. This is what is so different to the unfalsifiable Givens above.

I know this view of knowledge is unattractive to people compared to the unfalsifiable 'Truths' listed at the top. People don't like uncertainty. They like to think they know what's what. There's something manly about standing up for what you believe. Saying 'I can't be sure' seems more like a moral failure than a simple statement of the human condition. Our leaders are expected to know exactly how things are and what's to be done, and woe betide them if they seem a bit confused. Of course decisiveness and certainty are not the same thing. Making a decision when you aren't sure what you're doing is almost more heroic than pretending you do. And sometimes we need to believe we know what's happening (in the third, positive thinking, sense) in order to motivate ourselves and others. Positive thinking probably works because it makes us more alert and open to possibilities but that's all a bit woolly isn't it. Far easier to posit some Cosmic Ordering keeping an eye out for us wishing things would happen and then, out of the blue, intervening to grant our wishes. Psychology is such a bore by comparison. All those books...
It's easier too to imagine too some kind of sentient being standing over the world, somehow keeping it all running, harmonious and balanced, than having to grapple with all that physics, which, after all doesn't have all the answers anyway. Likewise seeing consciousness as some sort of irreducible and immortal soul inhabiting our material bodies is so much more manageable than neurology. And the neurologists don't have all the answers either. Surely they should by now, if they were ever going to?

But of course I'm being facetious. God, Intelligent Designer, the Soul, what are they made of? Where are they? How do they operate on the world. What do they want? These explanations are simpler than the scientific only in so far as they are easy to say. We don't actually know anything about them. The scientists may have to write out and explain a lot of complicated equations and stuff (frankly I don't get it) but the believer has to come up with all sorts of substances and forces that we have no notion of, acting in ways we can't detect, for reasons we have no way of understanding. And yet they claim to be able to grasp all this just by sitting quietly and using their intuition. What arrogance!

I understand also that the notions of souls and after-lives and karma are comforting, and faced with a grieving Mother there is no way I would try to take that away from her. Faced with imminent death I might even pray myself. It's got to be worth a try, when all else fails. I might even, under those circumstances, be able to convince myself that it might be true.
I also understand why moral philosophers need their categorical imperatives, just as the religious need their commandments and precepts. Because without it, they say, how could there be any moral foundation to life?

Philosophers like to remind social Darwinists that you can't derive 'ought' from 'is' (meaning you can't derive what people ought to do from what is the case in other species. Our ancestors might have been racist but that doesn't make it ok for us to be racist) but the reverse is true too. You can't derive 'is' from 'ought'. Just because something would be a good thing doesn't mean it must be so. It would be nice if there was a simple moral code 'out there' for us all to abide by or face the consequences. It would be wonderful if all these evil bastards, torturers and child-abusers got their come-uppance in the here-after. It would be nice if all the dreadful things that happen in the world could be put down to this one Big Brewin' Evil so we knew where to aim the rocket launchers, but wanting it doesn't make it so, and I don't think I'll ever be able to convince myself otherwise, and actually I don't want to. I'm ok with working assumptions. I'm ok with not being sure. It doesn't stop me being hopeful. And when someone does something generous and beautiful I don't want to give the credit to some otherworldly being. When someone is saved from danger or cured of a disease I want to give the credit to the rescuers or doctors, not to some imaginary guardian. We do amazing things - we, humans, and we deserve the credit.

Most of the time, here in the relative comfort of modern Europe, we tolerate each other's Givens because they are at worst irritating, at best, quaint. But when the people's of the wider world come to face each other, armed with their conflicting Unfalsifiables, how will they ever speak to one another? Maybe they just want to kill one another and don't care how they justify it. There's nothing much to be done about that, but on the other hand maybe they're just mistaken about each other. Maybe some of them, if it was drawn to their attention, might admit they weren't so sure any more and that maybe the other guys had a point. Maybe they could come to see some of their Givens as working assumptions. Maybe if they sat down and thought about it and perhaps looked at the evidence sometimes, maybe some of them might change their minds. I know it sounds far-fetched but you never know. It could happen. It's better than the alternative.

I'm very aware that this leaves open the question of where I get my values from and how I justify being so outspoken about them. Rest assured I plan to come back to that.

Friday, 4 November 2011

And The Wisdom To Know The Difference?

I heard the other day some pundit in the finance industry opining that the concepts of Left and Right in politics have become largely meaningless. It seems to be a popular view and I see what they're getting at - with the demise of the Iron Curtain back in the 80s and the much-vaunted Triumph of Capitalism and the fact that the main political leaders, at least in the UK, have become eerily interchangeable since then (though apparently not in the US where politics has become more polarised than ever.) It seems as if the old Left/Right wing Labour/Conservative debates have become largely redundant.
And yet... I still see the difference. It may not be discernible in the Houses of Parliament and it may be harder to define than it used to be in the old Communist-Block/Free-World era, but I reckon it's one of those things where, like pornography, you know it when you see it.

" change the things I can... accept the things I can't... and the wisdom to know the difference", so the old saw goes. That last line was always intoned to me as a teenager with added emphasis, as if the difference was obvious and I should just shut up about it and get a proper job. I grew up in a rather conservative working class family and Mrs Thatcher would have been proud. Conservatism is very much about accepting the world as it is and making the best of it.
Some accept it with regret. It would be nice if things were different they say, 'in an Ideal World', but 'Life's not fair.' Best to just keep your head down and get on with it. Conservatism and being working class have this in common - it's all about knowing your place, not making a fuss. It's the whole Protestant Work Ethic thing - very Calvinist.
Others of course like the world being as it is - life is about getting all you can, while you can, and sod everyone else.

I've always found Conservatism, at least in the UK, an odd paradox. Conservatives used to be all about The Establishment - landed gentry, hereditary wealth and all that. It was about the established church, obedience to time-honoured status and authority - to the monarchy, the gentry, the clergy, the courts, and beneath them the police, the teachers, the doctors and ultimately the husbands and fathers, who's homes of course were their castles. In extremis there was the military. The assumption was that these men (and it was all men) knew best. To defy them was at best highly irregular, at worst, illegal, immoral or unnatural. Conservatism and Conservation joined forces to preserve the time-honoured traditional landscapes and ways of life of the British People.
Then, around about the 80s, Conservatism came to mean something completely different, in some ways, completely the opposite. It was all about making money, at any cost to society (even if it meant dismissing the entire concept), morality or legality. If you could get away with it it was ok - as long as it resulted in profits and growth. (The legal system could be modified accordingly.) Everything and anything was for sale. Meritocracy, Social Mobility and Competition were the governing ideals. Cutting edge technology was the means. In theory at least, if you could do the job better than anyone else you could have it - wherever you came from, no matter what class, sex, race or age. There would be no point in discriminating against, say, a black lesbian over a bunch of white guys if she was the best for the job. You'd only be limiting your profitability. Old Conservatives no doubt would have had something quite different to say about it.
How these two 'Conservatisms' could possibly get on in the same party still baffles me. Sure, the Establishment were by far the wealthiest people in the country, like the new breed of global entrepreneurs, but there the resemblance ends. Old Conservatism has by and large ended up snoozing in the Upper House but their ideals still surface, apologetically, with Back to Basics, Caring Capitalism and The Big Society, and probably most stridently in Euro-Scepticism and UKIP.
There's nothing wrong with being sceptical about the EU. I make it my business to be sceptical about politics and economics generally but the Euro-Sceptic seems to be more in the grand old Conservative tradition of blaming the foreigners when things get tough - be they EU bureaucrats or immigrants. Right Wing politics, including old style Conservatism seems to be very much about defining one's self against outsiders - whether it be at the family level, the gender level (all us men together), racial, national or even species level (Right-Wingers are far less likely to worry about the 'rights' of animals unless they're their pets.) Changing the things you can and accepting the things you can't naturally focusses you on your immediate surroundings - the people and place you grew up with. Everything else is quite literally beyond you. Under extreme circumstances the consequences can be dire - most obviously in pre-war Germany where The 'Other' was simply to be exterminated.
But I don't want to suggest that Conservatives are Nazis. God knows, Left Wing politics has its own monsters.

Being Left Wing, as I suppose I broadly am, is not an exact mirror image of the Right. Left wingers, it seems to me, tend not to see the world so much in terms of Them and Us. There is a vague, possibly Utopian sense that we really are all in this together (all of us - men, women and children, all races, creeds and nationalities, sexualities, ages and states of health, even other species, even The Environment), and that, even if we're not all equal (whatever that means) we are somehow all deserving of (that hackneyed phrase) Equal Opportunities - The Pursuit of Happiness and all that. Democracy, Human Rights, The Rule of Law...
But wait - isn't that what the modern Global Entrepreneur believes too? Well yes and no, because the Capitalist sees this freedom and happiness only in terms of material wealth, markets, competition. The left-winger sees this 'deserving' being in spite of differences in material wealth, even of the poorest and most powerless, even in those, to some extent, who have brought their misfortune on themselves, through crime or negligence. Right-wingers are typically far less forgiving - assuming an uncompromising notion of the freedom and power of the human will. Whatever mess you may end up in you have no one but yourself to blame. Get over it. Left-wingers believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, of rehabilitation, of mitigating circumstances, of second chances. If this all sounds terribly idealistic and airy-fairy, it is. It's an ideal. Something to aim at.

I've deliberately couched my characterisations of Left and Right in caricature, but the obvious point here is that hardly anyone is either entirely left or right wing. They're useful labels for broad tendencies and a useful shorthand for describing some extreme individuals and groups. If there's a parallel on the Left to the changes in Conservatism over the last 30 years it's that no one over here seriously believes in the kind of faceless grey uniformity advocated by Mao and Lenin (but not, I'm pretty sure, by Marx.) The big change is toward much more individualism on both sides. The difference is once again that the Left do not see their individualism expressed purely in what they can buy.
Much was made for a while of the likes of Michael Portillo's move from Marxist student activist to Tory MP, as if this exemplified the demise of socialism as a viable political force, when for me, all it meant was that some people tend to think in extremes and assume that if the answer doesn't lie at one end of the spectrum, that it must be at the other. When I was at Brighton Poly back in the 80s I'd have been accused of being a Woolly Liberal for this but if Mr Blair hadn't hijacked the term I'd have been quite happy to talk here about some sort of Third Way.
Some see this as evidence of weakness - as an inability to make up one's mind. Being a real Leftie is extremely hard work and I have no such aspirations. We all, to some extent, have to live in The Real World, because we only have one life, we have to make the most of it. In my experience the very committed left wing activists are not the most self-sacrificing individuals but those who really enjoy what they do. Those who dismiss all protesters who are not utterly committed, true to the cause and without contradictions miss the point. It is necessary, no, essential that the Anti-Capitalist protesters outside St Paul's both pitch their tents outside the cathedral, getting attention by making a minor nuisance of themselves, but also nip off to the pub (or even home) in the evening (as the infamous heat scan photo suggested a few weeks back) because they have lives too. It doesn't make them any less right to make a fuss. The Bankers certainly won't feel compelled to stick to any coherent ethical standards in their endeavours. They'll both try to make as much money as possible at the office and perhaps go to church or give to charity as well.
What bothers me much more is that whatever the individual practitioners get up to in their time off, the logic of the market they serve is inexorable. It is an amoral machine for making money. And modern politics has hitched itself to this machine.
This is why I sometimes find I have more in common with old-style conservatives than one might expect (and why some of my most enjoyable debates have always been with them) - because we both have a sense that something is wrong, and it's a moral sense, not rational, not economic.
The difference, going back to Serenity Prayer at the top, is our differing notions of what can and can't be changed. The Leftie almost of necessity remains open to the possibility of making things better. It's almost an article of faith, no matter how unformed our strategy might be, or how futile our efforts. The Triumph of Capitalism is not the success of some great moral humanist system of progress and development, it's what's left after everything else has failed. It's Natural Selection, red in tooth and claw. Its strength is that it thrives when you stop trying to do something better. Left-wing politics goes against the grain, a constant uphill struggle against just giving in and doing what comes naturally. And since the old totalitarianisms have been discredited, it's piece-meal, incremental, a process, not a goal, and demands constant vigilance.

I was brought up very strongly with the notion that very little could be changed and that the sooner I realised that and got on with getting a job, getting married and having kids, buying a mortgage and the insurance and the pension and all the rest of it, the better, because everything else was just Cloud Cuckoo Land.
My dad was a Trades-Unionist (a shop-steward actually) in the 70s and an old-fashioned Labour man. He believed that there was not much to be done with the world except to try to get fairer slice of the pie for your self and your family through negotiations and, if it came to it, industrial action. He thought a lot of his colleagues were layabouts and spongers. He believed you couldn't expect to have a voice unless you put yourself up for election. Otherwise all you could do was vote and accept the consequences. I don't agree with a lot of that but he had a powerful (sometimes intimidating) belief that people really ought to do better but I don't think he thought there was much point in trying to change the world (at least not when I was old enough to debate with him) and I think that was a terrible shame and a waste, because he had so much more energy than I do for these things. My dad was a force for the good. I'm sure everyone who knew him would agree with that.
Still as just one in seven billion (give or take) I'll be happy if I can make just slightly more than one 7,000,000,000th of a difference, and that will have to do.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Rant No.1 (I don't need this pressure on)

I destroyed my PC keyboard this morning, in the sense that I put it out of its misery. I picked it up and smashed it on the top of the monitor - keys everywhere.
Emma got it for me last Christmas because she was sick of looking at the stained and discoloured grey one I'd been using for years. Remember when all PCs used to be a sort of landing-craft grey? That's how old it was. But it worked Goddammit it worked!
The new one had been bugging me for a while - well, ever since Emma got it for me really, but it was a slick brushed steel effect wireless job so I stuck with it. And besides - Emma got it for me. But the keys were too close together and I was forever hitting the wrong ones. In particular I'd inadvertently hit the caps lock when I went for the A and since I caN'T TOUCH TYPE i'D NOT NOTICE UNTIL SEVERAL SENTENCES LATER. Like that. There's an Ebay thing you can go on called Fat Fingers where you can bid for things that have not sold owing to their posting having been miss-spelled. For example - anyone looking for, say, an aquarium will miss the fact that someone is trying to sell an aquaroium. You can find some real bargains apparently. Anyhow I resent the fact that they call it Fat Fingers. It's blatant discrimination against blokes like me with normal working man's fingers, and a refusal to accept the reality that we don't all have tiny tiny little girlie pin digits.
But that wasn't why I smashed it. I yelled at it for that but I didn't get violent. It was the fact that I couldn't log in sometimes that really began to get to me. Clearly it wasn't registering all my key strokes, but even that wasn't really it. What really did it was the message that came up. 'Did you forget your password?' it said. 'No' I fumed. 'I didn't. It's this bloody keyboard.'
Try again.
'Did you forget your password?'
'No I bloody didn't. Can you morons not countenance the possibility that it might be the technology that's at fault?'
'Did you forget your password? You're a bit stupid aren't you.'
'No I'm bloody not...'

The thing that really gets me about this is the fact that the Tekkies who design this stuff - who presumably wrote that little message to come up when the wrong password was entered, could not allow for the fact that the machine rather than the user might be at fault. I've come across engineers like this before. My father was one, which possibly explains the violent atavistic reaction. 'A bad workman always blames his tools' he'd intone, helpfully, whenever I failed to accomplish a simple practical task. OK sometimes it was me that was at fault, but not always. But what got to me was that he could not conceive of the possibility of Bad Tools. They are unthinkable to the Tekkie, and hence not an option.
And the old key board worked fine, for years. And we threw it away because it was a bit grubby (frankly it was unsanitary - it had food in it). Clearly it's not impossible to make a keyboard that works. Why can't they do it then, the Tekkies? It seems like lately I'm coming across a lot of things (kettles, car stereos, socks) that I know from personal experience it is quite possible to make so that they function perfectly for decades. It's not exactly cutting edge technology, and yet  for some reason they don't seem to be able to do it any more.
I used to drive an old Lada (it was given to me free). I used the radio and tape deck pretty much all the time because I drive better with a little gentle distraction on in the background. It stops The Deep Thoughts forming. It never let me down - the radio I mean, not the Lada (although that did remarkably well too considering its age.) It was simple and reliable. Likewise that of the old Ford Escort estate I had after that. A simple to use, reliable car stereo is something that's been well within our grasp for quite some time now.
More recently I've had an MG ZTT (I know, don't get me started) and now I have a SEAT. In the MG the radio constantly tried to re-tune itself whenever the signal went a little off. I was yelling at it 'Leave it alone! It's not going to get any better!' but no. Try try try again, every ten seconds. Even worse was the setting where, if the signal from the station I was listening was not quite perfect, it went and chose another, seemingly at random.
'Is the sound quality of In Our Time not totally pristine and perfect? Well here's a blast of ludicrous junk from one of the local commercial stations. We're sure you'll find that an adequate substitute.'
No I won't! Bloody leave it alone!
At least I found the setting for that 'feature' and managed to turn it off. If I recall you had to press TTP, bass and FM at the same time while whistling the Marseillaise.
And now the SEAT has some sort of setting where every time you start it up the volume goes down to almost nothing and the Air Con blasts you out, drowning out whatever tiny sound the radio might be emitting. I have to turn the one up and the other down every time I start the car. Maybe there's some sort of factory setting I can change to stop it doing all these things I don't want it to. Who knows? But why should I have to? It should be obvious. I shouldn't have to go and find the manual to stop it doing a lot of unnecessary crap! Simple and straightforward should be the default. Tekkies can't conceive apparently of not wanting to read the handbook from cover to cover, or memorise a whole lot of permutations of switches and knobs in order to get the thing just to do the basic thing it was designed to do.
Our stove is like this if you switch it off at the mains. When you switch it back on you have to reset the oven by pressing these two buttons simultaneously and then that other one, or it won't work. Why? Surely the default state for an oven, when you switch it on, is to be able to use it to cook things. You shouldn't have to remember the combination.
And then, to cap it off there's the volume control (we're back in the car now) which, if you're not ever so delicate adjusting it (whilst driving along mind) suddenly turns the volume down to, say, 5 instead of up to 20, and then back to 12. Why? I understand it's a certain sort of design of dial and I'm sure it must have seemed very clever at the time, but... why? What's the point? Did they even think about it? Who employs these people?
These things do not happen by accident, as unintended consequences of some other feature of the appliance. Someone somewhere in  the design department has looked at these idiotic proposals and gone 'An oven that won't come on until you press some random combination of buttons. That looks like a great idea!' or 'Of course, we know much better than the actual driver what settings the car stereo/ventilation system should be at!' They've made an executive decision to install these pointless settings. Why?

Two theories come readily to mind - one is that the Tekkies are incompetent. They just haven't done enough research or thought about it enough, or tested it properly. I think this is quite possible. We're so obsessed with everything being new and exciting these days we don't seem to ask ourselves any more - But does it work? Is it reliable? Or failing that, is it easily fixed? We just go 'Ooh! Shiny new gadget. Ooh!' (stroke, caress)
'Does it work?'
'No idea. But isn't it shiny. And new.' (stroke, caress...)
This points to a second, more sinister explanation, which is that they're doing it on purpose, because after all, who wants computer hardware that lasts more than eight months? Haven't you upgraded yet?
Nobody's going to complain, or not enough of us anyway. We just chuck it out and get a new one. Which I suppose is what I've done (borrowed one actually, although I will have to get a replacement eventually.)
But at least I'm angry about it. All this stuff going into landfill. All this money I'm wasting buying new stuff (DVD players - that's another one - and you can't even nudge the arm to make it move on when it's stuck. You can't do anything except chuck it out and buy a new one. We've had five I think, in the last six years. One was a Wharfedale too so apparently that name counts for nowt these days) Am I alone in liking having stuff around that's been with me for donkey's years, grimy and clunky though it might be? Workmanlike is what I call it. It does the job. But can you get the parts?
I have a third explanation. Contrary to a lot of the whining going on at the moment about the price of things, most things (Electrical goods, clothes, you name it) are massively cheaper than they were a couple of decades ago. As I recall, the actual price ticket on, for example a half decent pair of jeans (£30) or a mid range stereo (£150 - £200?) hasn't changed but the figure on my pay cheque has increased by an order of magnitude (as a gardener £30 a week then vs £400 now) Maybe the new stuff is cheap because it's rubbish. Maybe the good stuff, which I'm sure you can still get if you know where to look, is also an order of magnitude dearer.
I doubt it actually. That may be part of the explanation but I think they're just happy to sell us flashy sub-standard junk and frankly they're really not that bothered what we think about them. Who could you complain to anyway, even if you could find the receipt? Customer Services? Don't make me laugh.
A lot of people born in the last couple of decades I suspect don't even know what it's like to own something reliable and well-made that's been around for years. (Wasn't that something they had to do in the post-war make-do-and-mend austerity times?)
Chuck it out then. Buy a new one. It's good for the economy after all, even if not for the environment or our moral well-being.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The End of Evolution

I lost a few friends one morning back in 1983. There was a debate about eugenics.
At the time I'd just broken up with my first proper girlfriend - a likeable enough girl, but who I didn't fancy and who I stayed with for two years because I was afraid no one else would have me. I was twenty-one.
Anyway - that's another story. Suffice it to say I was keen to make new friends and meet more women so when I met Chris Dance at work (with Brighton Parks and Gardens, picking the litter out of the municipal shrubs on the Whitehawk Estate) he seemed like exactly the type of guy to get me in there. He lived with a bunch of students in a shared house in Coleman Street, in the Hannover part of Brighton, north of Kemptown. He had travelled. He had a Swedish girlfriend. We went to see the Piranhas at what was then The Richmond (my first gig) and he introduced me to his house-mates and invited me along to one of their parties where we danced to the 12 inch versions of Dr Mabuse and Uncertain Smile. At the time it all seemed impossibly cool and trendy.

It was the following morning. We were all sitting around on the lounge floor in deep and meaningful conversation, and the subject of human evolution came up - about what we, the human race might look like in the future. As I recall the usual ideas came up - huge brains, puny little bodies, but then I piped up and said that wouldn't happen 'since everyone is allowed to breed these days'.
Things went very quiet after that. I was not invited back.

I'm not sure I realised what had happened at the time. I knew something had though. Somehow I'd blown it.
It was only much later I realised what it might have been.
At the time (and ever since) I was very interested in Evolution and Natural Selection. I tended toward the Stephen Jay-Gould end of the spectrum rather than the Richard Dawkins, but found the whole thing fascinating. I wasn't used to speaking up in public but on that occasion I felt qualified. Such nonsense people spout about evolution!
What I meant of course was that people were ‘allowed to breed’ in the same way as, for example, jet engines allow English people to spent the weekend in New York, or modern medicine allows people to live into their eighties. I didn't mean they were allowed legally or morally, and certainly not that I thought they shouldn't be allowed to breed, but that was how they took it, my new-found, right-on, politically correct, student teacher friends. If anything my view would have been (had they asked) that if we are no longer evolving, we should spend more on the NHS because of the increasingly unfit (in the Darwinian sense) population. I certainly wouldn't have been advocating eugenics. Quite the reverse.
If you're out there Chris, for the record, I wasn't a Neo-Nazi. Ok?

The idea that the human race is not evolving is hard to stomach for a lot of people though, but it's probably about right. For evolutionary changes to occur, genetically determined traits must affect the breeding success of their carriers. So for example, for the 'Big Head/Small Body' humans to evolve, people with big heads (and hence presumably big brains, hence greater intelligence) would have to leave more children than people with small brains. Likewise people with big strong bodies would have to leave fewer. As it stands, and without wanting be all elitist about it, the reverse seems to be the case. It's possible we're getting stupider rather than brighter.

I’ve given this some thought and it's hard in fact to think of any traits that have consistently lead to bigger families long enough to affect human evolution (except perhaps stupidity). I’d guess that those genes that tend to make us sick or disabled would tend to leave their carriers at a disadvantage but the more we are able to treat these inherited conditions, the more the carriers will be able to live ‘normal’ happy fulfilling lives and leave just as many descendants as everyone else, hence the increasing medical bill. Simple things like very premature babies and the kinds of complications that lead to caesarean section these days would have completely removed the genes that are associated with them from the gene-pool at birth. Now they don’t and to the extent that such complications are heritable, they are likely to increase. Does this mean that we should let these babies (and mothers) die in childbirth (as they would have until quite recently) for The Good of the Species? Obviously not, but we will probably have to provide more hospital beds and incubators as time goes on.
Disease resistance is another thing. Evolutionary biologists talk about the Red Queen hypothesis whereby “It takes all the running you can do to stay in one place”. The bulk of ordinary routine evolution does nothing but maintain the immune system - those without the requisite disease resistance being routinely eliminated leaving only those that do to pass on their genes. The immune system has to evolve to keep pace with the evolution of the pathogens, some of which, bacteria in particular, evolve very fast indeed. But to the extent that medical science can keep pace with the pathogens (with antibiotics etc) even this level of evolution is much less crucial than it would have been in earlier times and in other species. In any case it hardly changes our outward appearance (hence the ‘standing still’ part of the above quotation.)

Sexual selection is another possible source of rapid evolution – the classic example being the peacock’s tail – evolved in spite of being a liability in the hiding and running away department, it has reached its present proportions because the females liked it and selected the males with the biggest tails to have sex with. (It is probably an ‘honest signal’ of male fitness – only very fit males could get away with lugging that thing about in the jungle.)
Which human sexual characteristics have been consistently attractive over long enough periods of history to have affected our evolution? Men’s heights perhaps? Women’s breast size? Facial symmetry is often cited as particularly attractive to mates. Breast size is an interesting one because breasts don’t need to be anything like as big as they are, even in relatively modestly endowed women, merely to feed infants. Other mammals manage perfectly well with much smaller ones, so they’re probably as they are just to attract a mate. (This might cause offence to certain feminists but it is interesting that in most other showy species it’s the male that does all the showing off and looking amazing and the females stand about and choose. Humans are unusual in going for a much more even division of labour.) Penis size might be another one. Human penises (and presumably vaginas) are much bigger than other apes’ penises (and vaginas).
But generally it seems to me that what is considered attractive in men and women has varied so much through history and geography that it’s hard to come up with anything that has been so consistently and universally desirable that it might affect the look of the human race in anything but a very temporary and local way. Much of the increased overall average human size is probably mostly accounted for by improved diet, medicine and sanitation.
Psychological traits (to the extent that they are governed by genetics) are better candidates. Sociability, the ability to perform (in the sense of showing off – singing and dancing etc) or fight or be a good provider might be selected for but I see no particular improvement in any of this in the human race at large.

The reason for this ‘failure to evolve’ is in another characteristic of human society – the fact that sooner or later, almost all of us find someone to mate with, no matter how repulsive and socially inept (and under-endowed) we may be. By comparison, among gorillas and baboons for example, almost all the babies are the offspring of the one big dominant male. This is more or less true of all species that go in for large impressive males. In any species where you see vivid plumage and fins, big teeth and antlers, exotic singing and dancing and scrapping, observed from the sidelines by relatively quiet dowdy females, you can expect that the vast majority of males will never (and I do mean never) get the chance to mate (unless they're very sneaky) and all their genes will be completely lost to the gene pool. By contrast, almost all the females will get to mate.
Humans are different. For all our bragging and posturing and the very obvious sexual conquests of our alpha males, the fact is that the vast majority of us also find our beta, gamma and omega mates in due course and, on average, produce just as many sproggs in the long run, if not more.

At any rate, one thing is for certain - we can't rely on biology to make us better people. That we will have to do for ourselves.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Hate Crime

I've just been listening to a debate this evening on Hate Crime on Radio 4, the stimulus for which was the murder in 2007 of Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend 'because they were Goths'.
The argument seemed to be about whether the definition of 'Hate Crime' should be widened to include a much larger variety of victimised groups than previously and the perpetrators treated differently as a result. The exchange quickly got bogged down in the validity of the categorisations of the various groups that victims might belong to, in particular, whether membership of the group could be seen as voluntary (which for example being a Goth arguably is, in a way that being a woman definitely isn't.)

I think this muddles up two separate things - on the one hand the status of the victims and on the other the motives of the perpetrators.
Taking the latter first, it seems to me that there are various motives for criminal acts - most obviously Material Gain, whether it be burglary, mugging or looting for example. A simple love of doing damage whether to people or things is another - from vandalism to picking a fight with a random by-stander.
Hate crime is different (although any crime can have a mixture of motives of course) because it rests on intolerance of people seen to be different and therefore a threat to the perpetrators' idea of what people or society should be like. It's about power, contempt and narrow mindedness, and quite rightly it especially bothers us because it is reminiscent of fascism and other sorts of extremism. The riots were not a 'hate crime against shop-keepers' as one panellist suggested. They were mostly, as far as I could tell, about stealing and destroying stuff for fun.

My point here would be that in many ways, classifying this or that crime as 'racist' or 'homophobic' for example is perhaps giving the crime an integrity and a status it doesn't warrant. Certainly some people are more drawn to attacking black people than, say, attacking women, but in many ways that is just a matter of personal bias. What lies underneath is the urge to attack what is different. I firmly believe that it is not the case that if there were no black people in the UK the racists would all be lovely peace loving people. No, they'd find someone else to attack. It's who they are. They define themselves by who they hate, and feel the need to demonstrate this at every opportunity for fear of losing their identity.

Categorising the victims should therefore be irrelevant to the criminal justice system. Hate crime can be completely defined by the motivation of the attacker - which is hatred. It shouldn't matter what group or groups the victims might see themselves as belonging to and surely the police and the courts shouldn't be wasting time debating it. If the perpetrator attacked a person simply because of who they perceived them to be (as opposed to because they wanted to rob them or because they wanted to hurt someone and it didn't much matter who it was) then it is a hate crime.

Categorising victims in this or that group only becomes useful if those groups feel they can protect their members better by banding together - sharing information, providing solidarity and counselling for example. This is why categorisation makes perfect sense to victims and potential victims, but is of no use to the criminal justice system. (The only problem seems to be for those awkward buggers who are so different they don't fit into any groups.)

Something the panel did seem to agree on was that it didn't really matter whether membership of a group was voluntary or not. Combating hate crime is all about protecting the right of people to be who they are. Being 'different' is something we should value.
Amen to that.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

It's the end of the world as we know it... (and I'm feeling a bit tired, to be honest)

Looting at Wood Green.
I feel the urge to comment on what's been going on in London (and last night in other British cities) of late.
I live in a leafy Sussex village so not exactly qualified, and yet...
Part of me, the deeper more natural response, feels a deep foreboding. No Silly Season this year. My mind seeks to make sense of it - to find a pattern. With the chaos in the global economy and the corruption in our media, everything seems to be falling apart. It can only be a matter of time.
The other, more rational part of me though, wants to know if this is really anything new. It's my attempt at an antidote to Daily Mail style knee-jerk outrage - to see the broader pattern, look for counter examples. For a start, it's irrational to expect that extreme news stories will be evenly spaced through time. Sometimes they come along several at once. And haven't we seen all this, and worse, before, at other times, in other places?

Let me, for a moment, indulge the first part. There could be something big and dramatic going on. The thing that immediately pops into my mind is that there has been over the last twenty to thirty years a loss of a sense of morality - the idea that there are things you simply do not do, no matter how much you may feel you can get away with them, and that conversely, some things are simply right and worth doing whether they make economic sense or not. So -
The markets are in turmoil because the only thing that mattered to the traders and investors was making as much money as possible as quickly as possible, irrespective of what was being bought and sold. The media is in trouble because the only thing that counted was selling papers, and it didn't matter how the 'stories' were obtained or whether they were worth telling. What's happening in English city centres right now is happening because people have realised that if enough of them turn up in one place at one time and are prepared to be violent, that they can get away with pretty much anything. Civilised society, for all its faults (see pretty much any of my other postings) works not because there's an armed policeman on every corner but because people generally agree to go along with it. Without that agreement nothing matters except what you can get away with. And if you get caught? Well - you wouldn't want to be seen as 'Risk-Averse' would you? It's no different to rock-climbing, or snow-boarding, or market trading.

But is this anything new? Haven't there been crises, scandals and riots before? Not on this scale perhaps? Maybe. The Radio 4 programme The Long View is an especially useful resource here. There is always an historical precedent it seems. Go back a bit and you can always find something uncannily similar going on somewhere. Plus ça change, plus la même bloody old chose as I always say.

Part of me wants this to be different though. I don't want the world to be going to Hell in a wheelie bin but there's something seductive about it - The End of Days, partly because, being nearly 50, I probably won't be around to witness the denouement. Actually I'm much more deeply distressed by what's happening to the environment - for example in Brazil and China in the name of economic growth. I watched Avatar again over the weekend and was in tears, not because of what was happening on screen so much but because I know that huge swathes of Amazon rainforest will soon be under water due to a new dam they're building and the fish will no longer be able to migrate and breed and the locals will no longer be able to sustain themselves as a result, the way they have for generations. And yet it does feel like part of the same thing. The Brazilian government has decided that making money is their priority and everything else - wilderness, biodiversity, indigenous cultures, are just not definable, not measurable, not valuable enough to count. 'But what of the favelas?' you might ask. 'What about the poverty, the lack of proper jobs, the lack of a decent place to live?' but we all know there's more than enough for everybody, still, in the world, as it is. It's just not shared out properly. The Brazilian government says it wants to deal with the poverty, but only if it means not disrupting the wealth. That's the bottom line.
There was some finance pundit on the radio yesterday (I didn't catch his name) commenting on the power, or lack of it, of governments to deal with the economic chaos. He seemed to see The Market as this wonderful perfect democracy - where ordinary people could spend or invest their money as they wished, on what they wanted, expressing in the purest form, how they wanted the world to be run. Government was therefore redundant. But in that case, what of those with no money, or very little? Not that long ago the only people allowed to vote in parliament were the wealthy landowners, and then they let the wealthier merchants join in.
I might be able to vote with my cash whether to buy Freedom Foods chicken breasts or the factory-farmed alternative, but this other guy can choose whether to buy BSkyB Ltd or not.
And what about things that don't have a monetary value, and yet which are intrinsically worth having anyway, whether you have the money to buy them or not? (I know - such things are anathema to The Market.)

I could blame the parents. For all the good it did, since the sixties, parents have not seen it as being their job to teach their children right and wrong. 'Who are we to tell them what to do?' they say. 'What right have we?' And they feel so guilty for not being at home as much as they'd like, and for getting a divorce, so they want to be 'nice' to their children no matter what they do, and don't feel they are really justified in being in any way 'nasty'. (I actually have a lot of time for Supernanny popularising the concepts of 'Firmness' and 'Boundaries' but that's for another topic.) The pre-sixties authoritarianism where the husband and the father (the priest, the teacher, the policeman) enjoyed his arbitrary power I suspect stands as the bogeyman alternative - one none of us, quiet rightly, want to go back to. So morality is seen as something relative - a matter of opinion. We're all entitled to our opinions and the childrens' (because they are natural and unspoiled, until we get our greasy mits on them) are more valid than most.
But children are not perfect beings. They have no in-built morality of their own. Children, like other animals, are naturally amoral, selfish, inconsiderate and interested in immediate gratification unless taught otherwise. They don't think 'What is the right thing to do?' They think 'What am I allowed to do?' They don't think 'Is this a good thing to do?' They think 'What will get me the most attention?' They don't think 'Is this wrong?' They think 'Can I get away with it?' Only later on, if at all, does a more detached sense of right and wrong develop, and it has to be taught, like any other skill. That is our job as parents. It is not 'nasty' or authoritarian. It is necessary.

So - you can see where I'm going with this. Is what is going on in Tottenham and Wapping and The City of London a simple result of modern parenting? Are they really just spoilt brats writ large?
Of course not. How much have any of us ever really done simply because it was the right thing to do? How good has parenting ever been, really?
Isn't the magnitude of the chaos just about the size of the organisations - their global reach, or, in the case of the rioters, their ability to communicate via their Blackberries? Isn't it just all about technology and globalisation?
I honestly don't know.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Life, the Universe etc, part 2

Judging by the response to the last posting I've clearly failed to make myself understood.
I really didn't want to get into the whole atheism vs religion debate. I know it's very popular but I think it's redundant. Frankly I'm sick of it. But I was trying to say something else...

What was I trying to say?
Actually I think I was trying to say why I think it's redundant.
In my experience these discussions seem to begin with someone claiming that such and such a thing cannot be explained by science, and it's not just the existence of God. People believe in ghosts and like to recount their bizarre experiences, and invariably (in the movies at any rate) the man says "There must be a rational explanation!" and the batty old woman gives him a look that says "There are more things in heaven and earth Sunshine..."
Many people believe that each of us is born with some sort of non-material soul or spirit that is our essence and gives us our basic personality, and possibly our conscience. Most people I would think, believe that there is some sort of existence after death, either in an afterlife or in another life. Some people believe that the good and bad things we do come back to reward or punish us according to some sort of cosmic reckoning, in this life or the next. A lot of people seem to think there's no such thing as coincidence. Everything happens for a reason.
Am I alone in finding all this a bit weird? Maybe I'm missing something.

My first thought is that when people explain these beliefs they put a lot of trust in their Intuitions or Instincts. Basically, if they Feel something very strongly to be true then they feel it must be true, unlike the rather abstruse arguments of science and reason which can be very hard to get a handle on. (I genuinely sympathise, having tried and failed to become a professional scientist.) By comparison, the immediate experience of just realising that something is simply True is incredibly powerful.
I'm not just saying this as an outsider. I was converted to Christianity when I was a teenager. I can't remember what he said - the chap who converted me (Hi Ralph) but I do remember that ecstatic feeling of 'Of course! It's so obvious...' that I had for a while there. (I also remember the deep distress I felt at the Hove Town Hall prayer meeting - everybody up and dancing and speaking in tongues, when it became obvious that God wasn't talking to me.)
I also took a keen interest in Astrology for a while there. My mum was doing a course and I thought it was interesting and it really didn't occur to me to wonder if it actually made any sense. I had my horoscope done and lo and behold, there seemed to be some truth in it! (Plus it was an excellent way of getting into conversations with girls.)
I used to go to a homoeopath too, for my allergies. I was aware at the time that my body's responses seemed rather unpredictable but it didn't occur to me at the time to wonder if it was any more or less predictable with the homoeopathy. Sometimes it seemed to be working, but it didn't occur to me that my symptoms flared up irregularly anyway. I just went along with it, because a lot of my friends swore by it. I didn't consciously form a belief in homoeopathy. I just didn't really question it.

So I'm no stranger to credulity. I know what it's like. I still touch wood whenever I tell someone things are going well, because, well, why not? (If the custom was to touch shit I might not be quite so superstitious.)
The trouble is, this trust in personal experience is a major problem. I understand that there are all sorts of problems with impersonal 'objective' experience (as in science), but we massively underestimate the fallibility of our own personal subjective experience. There are several levels to this.
Anyone who understands anything at all about neurology will know that it's extraordinary that we manage to maintain any sort of coherent view of the world at all, and I'm not talking about brain damage here - I'm talking about normal brain function. We make stuff up all the time to fit our preconceived notions. We ignore stuff all the time and think we remember things as having happened that didn't - things we were told happened, or things we dreamed. My mother insists I took her advice and hit a bully at school when I 'know' I never did. She's absolutely sure it happened, because she remembers it, whereas I'm only 70% sure it didn't, which puts me at a disadvantage, but what I do know is that she can't possibly be that sure.
On top of all this there's all sorts of psychology involved. My mum probably really wants to believe that I took her advice (Bullies are just cowards really. All you have to do is stand up to them) and proved that I wasn't a complete weed after all. It's a nice story, but I really don't think it ever happened.
Then there are simple failures to think clearly. Understanding probability is the obvious one.
An Australian woman I once knew told me how extraordinary it was that she had met some neighbours of hers at Anapurna Base Camp. 'What are the chances?' she said. Uncanny. Except she forgot to factor in all the other possibly millions of people she'd encountered on her travels (all through Thailand, India and Europe) who she didn't know, and all the other people travelling with her who didn't meet anyone they knew at all. Given the numbers, the chances that an Australian will meet someone they know somewhere on their travels are practically 100%. Coincidences can be inevitable and meaningless.*

So we're fallible. Most of us I guess sort of accept this, and yet some of us are prepared to stand up and say that God exists, or that we have souls, or that there's an afterlife, or that we'll all ultimately get what we deserve.They have these deep intuitions. The religious typically get it through reading scriptures and/or contemplation or prayer, but I've known enough people of a sort of indeterminate spirituality of no fixed religion who make similar claims, who just seem to think they can just know that sort of stuff, just by, you know, sitting down and thinking about it. Why on earth, they ask, would that not work? I think they don't perhaps appreciate the magnitude of the things they are claiming to know. The existence of God is about the force behind the entire universe. And they imagine they can have some meaningful comprehension of that simply by sitting on a mountain, or by repeating something over and over, or by smoking dope.
Is it just me or does that seem preposterous? I honestly don't get it.
Tell me, genuinely. I really want to know. What is going on?
I'm certainly not saying that science or reason can step in and do it better. Science is good at mundane practical stuff, and it can extrapolate, to some extent, to the cosmic and the subatomic, but putting that on one side, how can anyone even begin to imagine that our limited, biased, flawed minds can understand anything about the ultimate nature of life, the universe and all that, just by contemplation? Why on earth would so many of us assume that? I can't help feeling there's a kind of arrogance to it.

So (nearly there) this is my basic question. Why, when we come up against this argument about the existence of God do we sceptics enter into a complex defence of evolution or cosmology or whatever, when the alternative hypothesis is simply nowhere? There's nothing to argue about. People are welcome to believe in all that stuff about God and so forth but let's not pretend that it is in any way a well-founded belief. It just comes down to what we happen to feel like (in a very deep sort of way admittedly) but there's no justification for imagining that these beliefs have any greater significance than that.
Does that make my position any clearer?

* For anybody who's interested in pursuing the subject of all the myriad ways we can't know for sure all the things we'd like to think we know, I can recommend nothing better than Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Life, the Universe and that sort of stuff

Light Echo

I was listening in on a conversation between my wife and my brother-in-law about the existence of God the other day. I can't remember how the debate started but it finished with him professing open mindedness on the subject. There might be Something, he thought. Who was he to say?
He tends toward the atheist and the sceptic generally but he didn't want to be dogmatic about it, and neither do I. I feel no need to gratuitously trash other people's belief systems. Belief in some sort of Almighty has a venerable history and here in the UK at least it seems harmless enough and if it means that ordinary people are more likely to get organised and do Good than they might otherwise I'm all for it. And I love old churches, choral music and renaissance paintings.
There is something odd about the whole Existence of God debate though. It's strange to me that there even is a debate. My Bro-in-Law's point as I understand it was that there are so many holes in the science (origins of the universe, evolution, consciousness) - so much we don't know, that, well, why not? Maybe there is a God. Who knows?
It sounds generous and broad-minded. And he's right - Science doesn't know Everything - not by a long way, and probably never will. Anybody who keeps up with the Popular Science media will know that there's a big question about all the matter that is supposed to have formed in The Big Bang. The sums just don't add up, apparently. They call the missing stuff Dark Matter but they know that doesn't explain anything. And then there's all the Anti-Matter. Supposedly there should have been equal quantities of Matter and Anti-matter in The Beginning, but nobody knows where the Anti-Matter's gone.
And anyway, how did the universe big-bang itself out of nothingness to begin with?
Maybe there's a God.

I've been watching the Faithful and The Atheists butt heads on this since I was a teenager, and I've joined in as a sort of Agnostico-atheist. (ie. It's impossible to prove that God doesn't exist, but it seems unlikely and way too convenient.) I personally have a background in ecology so I tend to get embroiled in the Evolution debate rather than the Physics, and I've had some memorable arguments with Evolution Deniers, trying laboriously to explain to them how an eye could possibly happen without being Designed by some sort of Intelligence. I found myself having to go back and back, trying to explain about the function of the lense and then the chemistry of the retina and then nerve function half remembered from my first year Biology. I'd have had to go on to explain about Evo-Devo and Precambrian ecology, in none of which am I an expert. Half the problem was that they just didn't have enough Biology to be able to imagine how it might happen (and yet they expected their opinions to be taken seriously). I don't know the details but I can sort of imagine. The evolution of an eyeball is just not that outlandish to me.
But in any case there was a better argument that only occurred to me later. (Don't they always?)

What I should have said was 'Ok, so you can't imagine how an eyeball could possibly evolve by natural selection. What is your alternative hypothesis?'
They'd look at me like I was an idiot and go 'The Intelligent Designer/Creator is the alternative hypothesis. Have you not been listening?'
And I'd go 'But what do you know about this Intelligent Designer/Creator? Where is it? How does it work? What's it made of? What does it want? How big is it?' And I'd guess they'd say... Well I don't know what they'd say. If they were coming from a religious point of view I guess they might say something mystical about 'The Unknowable'. If they were trying to be more scientific about it they might reiterate the point about the gaps in our scientific knowledge of the universe, which I concede are huge, but that doesn't mean we know nothing.

Going back to the Big Bang conundrum, there are huge gaps in our knowledge but we do know things. We know a fair bit about energy and matter and gravity and how they work. We know a bit about stars and subatomic particles. We have the Hubble Space Telescope and the LHC. We can do the maths and we can form hypotheses and we can test them. To be sure, it's quite a leap to take the physics of objects here on earth and to apply it to objects that existed billions of years ago at the dawn of time. The point though is, even if we had almost no evidence and practically no theories to go on, our knowledge would still be infinitely greater than our knowledge of The Creator, because on that, we have absolutely nothing.
So this is my question. Why is it that Atheists even enter into a conversation with Theists as if there is something to be discussed, as if they are in some sort of equivalent position? The very attempt at an Atheist response gives Theism a status that it does not have.
In fact even if we knew absolutely nothing of the science of the Origins of the Universe that would still not justify the assumption that some Unknown Being was involved.
Our relative ignorance of the science is not comparable to our absolute ignorance of the Creator. They are not comparable hypotheses. There's simply nothing to discuss.

Most Theists of course are coming at the question from a position of Faith.
Simply believing in something even though you have absolutely nothing that could count as evidence in a rational scientific debate is a venerable position and I have nothing to say about that (or not here anyway).
Most people of faith however are not so rigorous. Most do, sooner or later want to claim that they also have some kind of material evidence of His existence. (They may also claim that the Scientists have their own faith - in reason, materialism or some such - something I could refute, but not right now. Another time perhaps.)
Usually though their argument boils down to something like 'Well how else do you explain it?'

This is the problem with My Bro-in-Law's Open-Mindedness, because you could explain it any way you like. You could advocate any of the myriad creation myths that exist and have existed around the world throughout history. You could claim that the stars were sprinkled from the Breasts of the Sky Goddess. You could claim that the universe hatched from an egg. You could say that the universe was sneezed from the nose of the Great Green Arkleseisure. They're all at least as plausible as the idea that there is some unknown being out there, that, for unknown reasons and by unknown means, brought the universe into being out of nothing. Calling It God or The Intelligent Designer simply gives our ignorance a name. It does not even begin to explain anything.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A Viable Alternative?

Just a quick note here about the whole AV (Alternative Vote) debate going on here in the UK. I'm voting 'Yes' btw.
My initial thinking was, being a bit of a Leftie and living down here in Southern England, voting has often seemed a bit futile (except when I lived in Brighton or Lewes, which are Green and Lib-Dem respectively). Look at the map - it's almost all Conservative down here and yet I know almost nobody who votes for them. I'm not crying electoral fraud, it's just how it is, at least under the first-past-the-post electoral system. We lefties simply have no voice in Parliament down here. So initially I just thought they needed a bit of a shake-up. What the heck, I thought. It's all anarchy.

One of the problems I suspect is that being left of centre is not a simple either/or situation. There are all sorts of shades of opinion and debates going on about public services, human rights and the environment. The debate is ethical and ideological as well as economic. On the other hand, I don't think I'm terribly wide of the mark if I say that being Conservative is relatively simple - It's the economy, stupid. Conservative voters basically just want to know how much tax they'll have to pay. As a result the left wing vote is always to some extent split between Labour, the Lib-Dems and the Greens, where the right-wing vote really isn't.

So my support for AV now is based on the idea that Labour voters are likely to put Lib-Dem or Green candidates second and third on their ballot slips, Lib-Dems are likely to put Labour or Green, Greens would likely put Labour or Lib-Dem. None of them is likely to put Conservative as a second or third choice.
I'd concede that the Conservative vote might to some extent be split by those who like to blame foreigners for everything (As if the British Government never passes stupid laws. As if British people would never work illegally or claim benefits they were not entitled to.) and who therefore vote for UKIP or the BNP but they're frankly a bit of a joke, at least down here. Most right-wing people here trust the Conservatives to bash the EU and the immigrants.

What this means, if I'm on the right track, is that under AV, left-wing voters might be more likely to get the representation at the polls that they actually warrant. I have no idea how many more non-Tory MPs this would give us in parliament, but it's got to help. It might at least mean that the Tory candidates can't ignore us if they want to stand a chance of getting that second or third place on the ballot slip.

Sure it would be nice if we Lefties could get organised, stop squabbling among ourselves and form a big single-minded party like the Conservatives, but the whole Conservative way of thinking is based on the simple-minded notion that politics is a simple us/them, red/blue, dumbed-down tabloid sound-bite, first-past-the-post competition.
It's not, or it shouldn't be.
That view of Politics gets them into power, but it doesn't make them right.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Who will cast the last stone?

Palestine Grafities
I was standing behind an old gent in the queue at Barclays a couple of days ago. He was talking at the woman behind the counter about current events in Libya and Egypt - how it's always been the same - the Muslims, fighting amongst themselves. He was out there in the forties apparently - in Suez. 'These Africans' he said 'they need a dictator to keep them in line.' (He didn't say 'These Fuzzie-Wuzzies' but I felt the term was in the air.)
As he turned to leave I wanted to say to him 'and yet the most mindlessly brutal wars in history happened only a few decades ago among us 'Christians', in Europe', but of course I didn't. He wasn't giving us a piece of penetrating political analysis. He was just having a go.
It wouldn't even be worth reporting if I didn't feel though that his views were widely held in this country and across Europe. Lady Warsi's point a few weeks back about the tacit acceptability of anti Muslim prejudice among otherwise respectable, intelligent, middle-class folk strikes me as having a lot of truth to it (although, here in Mid Sussex, where ethnic minorities are less obvious unless you visit a take-away, the role is generally reserved for the gipsys.)

I'm not saying that there isn't a heck of a lot of bad stuff going on in The Muslim World at the moment, and has been for some time. It's disingenuous to claim, as the more Politically Correct among us like to do, that anti-terrorist measures should not 'target' Muslims. At the moment, like it or not, if you meet a terrorist, they're likely to be a Muslim. (This is absolutely not the same as saying 'If you meet a Muslim, they're likely to be a terrorist'. Some people don't seem to be able to tell the difference between these two statements.) At this moment in history, what terrorism is being carried out is being carried out mostly by Muslims. At other times in other places it's been the Catholics or the Protestants or the Anarchists or the Communists or the Fascists (who could conceivably be lumped together under 'Atheists'). Nobody is exempt. Everybody has been at it at some point in history. At the moment it's Islam's turn. Likewise armed insurrection and brutal dictatorship. Oppressed nations today would have found Tudor and Stuart England remarkably familiar with it's political killings and brutal repression of ethnic and religious minorities at the whim of the local despot.

Probably the only blameless nation until very recently would have been the Jews - universally reviled and used as scape-goats throughout history - only after the end of World War two did the Christians finally in any serious way face up to what had been happening and even then we managed to lay all the blame on a couple of maverick regimes (Fascism and Stalinism) when in fact they were just the latest examples of something that had been going on for millennia - almost as long as the Jews had existed. After the war Judaism accrued an unprecedented level of good-will and sympathy from Christians which is why now there is a widespread sense of betrayal and disgust (though we do not admit it openly for fear of being seen as anti-Semitic*) at what is being perpetrated by the Israelis against the Palestinians. Apparently it is widely believed among ordinary Christians that the Israelis and Palestinians are more or less equally to blame for what has happened in the Middle East. (Some even seem to be under the impression that 'The Occupied Territories' are Israeli lands occupied by Palestinian Muslims.) The treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis during the founding of Israel included genocide, deportation and incarceration in prison camps and shows that the Israelis had learned nothing from the events of the previous decades except how to subjugate a weaker nation on the grounds that they were The Chosen People and that this was The Promised Land (as if that argument should hold sway over anyone of any other faith.) To this day Israeli casualties are a tiny fraction of Palestinian deaths (something like 100:1) - hardly surprising when the former are armed by the USA and the latter are armed with what amount to heavy duty fireworks.

The nations of Europe have been at each other's throats throughout much of recorded history. It was the Europeans that carried out The Crusades and the Inquisition, built the concentration camps and the Iron Curtain - genocide and torture comparable with anything anywhere else in human history. And then we exported it across the Atlantic and obliterated the people we found there and bought Africa into slavery. The Americans went in for racial segregation, anti-communist witch-hunts, eugenics, weapons of mass destruction and mass incarceration of ethnic minorities on a scale only seen in modern times in third-world countries. The greatest threat not just to peace but to life on earth came to an end only twenty-two years ago after more than forty years' stand-off between two 'Christian' nations and their allies. (I'm talking about The Cold War of course.) I'm not anti-American by any means but as the dominant nation on earth at present they must stand up and take most of the flak for how things are, both at home and wherever they meddle in the local politics abroad .

For a long period, when the Christians were squabbling and bickering (ostensibly about what Jesus wanted them to do, but in truth about who controlled what land) the Islamic world was a place of relative peace and civilisation. When the Christians took a break from the carnage it was the Persians who had kept safe the legacy of classical learning. Left to our own devices we probably would have burned the lot and dismembered everyone connected with it.

But I don't want to give the impression that I am an apologist for all things Islamic. They have plenty to answer for, including genocide, torture, oppression of women and religious minorities, despotism and war. (There's no need to go over the details.) Global terrorism is only it's most obvious and contemporary feature. But faith has been used to excuse violence everywhere and throughout history. Violent extremism is no more intrinsic to Islam than to Christianity or Judaism or indeed Atheism.

Of course the obvious retort is that none of that could ever happen again here in England. We're moved on haven't we -  civilised, democratic, affluent. We'd never stoop to that kind of intolerance and brutality. Of course not.
It's all these immigrants that's the problem...

* which I am absolutely not. I am against militaristic regimes and the oppression of minorities.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

An Only Child - part 1

Thru'penny Bit
Kingston Beach at low tide
I don't dislike children - contrary to what some may think.
I do dislike it when people are loud and selfish and don't put things away after they've finished with them, and when they insist they know what's going on when in fact they don't. I also have problems with people who make a huge fuss when things don't go their way. The fact that this describes a large proportion of most 'normal' childhood behaviour doesn't seem to bother most people but it's always struck me as odd. Indeed, most adults seem to see it as typical or even healthy and hardly worthy of comment. Why do I feel so differently about it?

I had a pretty good childhood back in the sixties and seventies by most standards. I was pretty content as long as I had some paper and pencils or plasticine or Lego to play with. I was mostly into dinosaurs. I had full and complex relationships with my cuddly toys. I spent hours hunting wildlife (mostly slugs and beetles), digging holes and building camps in the garden - a wilderness of nettles, brambles and raspberry canes and other miscellaneous junk. The soil was full of broken glass from a wrecked greenhouse but I hardly ever cut myself and never seriously. I never played on the lawn. Both the house and the garden were pretty immense by today's standards so it was easy to stay out of sight. I had collections of stamps, seashells, Airfix models, and then tropical fish and house plants (which got me into gardening just before I left home). I spent hours down on Kingston Beach hunting marine life. It was just across from the end of the road. I knew all the little twittens and wasteland around the town and then as I grew I spent a lot of time over the harbour and I walked and cycled as far as Steyning and Ashington. I looked at my dad's books (non-fiction - mostly wildlife) and listened to his music (from Louis Armstrong to Holst, from Westside Story to Tubular Bells). We had cheap camping holidays and big family Christmases. We didn't have a telly for years.
Don't assume from this that I come from a posh background. My dad was an electrical fitter and shop steward at the power station, like my mum's dad before. My dad's dad was a lorry driver amongst other things, and they were all from around Shoreham. Mum did home help and bar work. The big house on Victoria Road, Southwick was cheap because it was a mess. At the time it was cold and dusty and decidedly eerie at night. It was not an attractive house. Back then there was no housing shortage and everyone wanted the new bungalows on the Downs behind Shoreham. Dad fixed the whole thing up himself (with help from friends and relatives) because we couldn't afford to pay plumbers and electricians and carpenters. He learned to do everything himself. Today a three storey, four bedroom house with a lounge and a dining room and a conservatory and probably a third of an acre at the back would be a different matter. Nowadays you'd pay the better part of half a million for it, pull it down and start again.
And don't imagine that Southwick was a picturesque idyll. It has a rather impressive village green and some very venerable buildings near by, but the bulk of the town is fairly anonymous. Travelling from Brighton to Worthing along the coast road you'd hardly know it from all the other places along there - Hove, Portslade, Fishersgate, Shoreham and Lancing. Kingston Beach, which lies within Shoreham Harbour, is a mud flat at low tide with only shallow muddy pools among the pebbles and rubble. There was a remarkable variety of life down there none the less. Back then, without a property boom, demolition sites could sit empty and grow weeds for decades. I hunted grasshoppers and lizards among the rubble and played jungles in the Buddleia and Japanese Knotweed.
It's unimaginable now that a child as young as seven or eight would be let loose in that environment, but I was. I don't think I ever had a major accident. I was very careful. I knew my limitations. One day a man stopped his car near me in Southwick Square and asked me to get in. I simply said no and walked away. Mum had told me, if a stranger spoke to me to go into a shop.
Most of the time I remember I was left to my own devices. I don't remember particularly being lonely or feeling neglected. Sometimes I envied my younger brother because he always had friends around, but then, if he didn't have company he didn't really know what to do with himself. I on the other hand rather resented people interrupting and interfering.
I don't ever remember being deliberately naughty or mischievous. With my family there would have been little point in pushing it so I didn't try. They were not nasty about it - just firm. There would have been no point arguing. I did not live in fear though. I learned to be sneaky. My mum was somewhat anxious and controlling so it was best simply not to ask permission. She preferred not to be distracted from doing what she had to do so it worked both ways. My brother and I never really felt the need to fight and my parents never rowed so we weren't used to raised voices in our house and I still hate to hear people arguing. When we visited friends and relatives their children always seemed to be throwing tantrums or sulking. Everything seemed to be a battle for them and I stayed out of their way. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I was the eldest by many years of all the children in our family circle. My brother wasn't born until I was three and we  therefore had very little in common. All our friend's children came along after that. There was no child care or nursery school so I didn't meet another child my own age until I went to school aged five. That's probably why meeting 'normal' kids was such a shock and something I've never really come to terms with.