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Archive for April 2007

slagging off the bombers

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Today, in London, five people were convicted of plotting to bomb targets in and around London. Those would not have been suicide bombings; the modus operandi was taken from Timothy McVeigh’s bomb attack on Oklahoma city, with fertilizer-based bombs in vans triggered remotely. There are more details at BBC News.

One of the planned targets was the Ministry Of Sound, a famous London nightclub. Transcripts of conversations (also at BBC News) between the bombers go in to detail on why this might have been a target. Something about “slags” (loose women) i.e. moral judgment on the people in the nightclub. They drink alcohol, dance, have adulterous sex outside marriage; so they deserve to die, right? Quote:

… no one can even turn around and say ‘Oh they were innocent,’ – those slags dancing around…

This line demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Western society; more specifically, the emphasis on individuals and individual responsibility. It starts with the way the role of governments has evolved.

Today, a Western government has strictly defined limits on what it controls. It does not have Carte Blanche to decide what is a crime and what is not, even if it sometimes seems that way. It responds to what it perceives as the “will of the people”, expressed though the members of Parliament, who talk directly to their constituents. There is a certain level of party-politics involved, where individuals do not get what they want, but the electorate will only tolerate so much of that.

Are drinking, dancing, or adultery crimes in Britain today? No, they are not. Your religion might say otherwise, or you may even look down your nose in secular disapprobation, but it doesn’t matter: in a representative democracy you, as an individual, do not get to impose your personal sense of right and wrong on others. In a country as large as Britain, that would make everyone guilty of something.

Now imagine that the bombing had taken place, and each of the victims was a “slag” in every sense, committing all of the “crimes” the bombers imagined them guilty of. Firstly, how would you get your message across? Press statement? Videos of guys in masks? Dangerous: a lot of smart people would be looking for you – mock them at your peril – and every piece of information that slips out builds up a picture that can lead them to you.

So you get your message broadcast on the BBC and Channel 4: what effect will that have? It’s not enough for you to say that the victims were “slags”; do you have proof? You do? Enough to convince their family. OK, but then how does it follow that they deserve to die?

In a civilized society, like it or not, “morality” is insufficient justification for someone to die. It might be in Pakistan etc., but you’re not in Pakistan, and there is no general desire to impose Pakistan’s Sharia laws on Britain. The accusations would not be accepted, because the accusers have no authority to pass judgments.

The response from the family and friends of the victims would drown out any accusations. Why? Because the right to life of an individual takes priority. Britain no longer has a death penalty, even for the most serious of crimes, and (reminder) the actions the “slags” are accused of not even considered to be crimes. Here parents don’t kill their children when they violate moral standards; they discipline them, instruct them, and forgive them. There is such a thing as an “ex-slag”.

It follows, logically, the Ministry Of Sound bombing would not have got the message to the people of Britain. It would been the senseless murder of people innocent of any crime under the laws of the society they live in. Had they lived elsewhere, they would have behaved differently. If you don’t understand how individuals can behave that way without the collapse of society, you have a lot to learn. Start with the Analects of Confucius – 500 years before Jesus, over 1000 years before Mohammad – and his advice:

  • The superior man governs men, according to their nature, with what is proper to them, and as soon as they change what is wrong, he stops.
  • When one cultivates to the utmost the principles of his nature, and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path. What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.

Translation: coercion or violence will not change people; you have to deal with them as they are, and that works both ways.

Naturally, there are now calls for further inquiries in to the surveillance operations, to try to lay the blame for not catching these aspiring bombers sooner, and even the July 2005 bombers. You know what? I’m more than satisfied with the explanations, because it shows that surveillance is not 100% effective or comprehensive, and that there is still a chance of privacy in Big Brother Britain.

Once again I am reminded of The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand:

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

Today, we need governments and police forces to protect us from the actions of the uncivilized. The ideal civilization would need no policing, from without or within; a society of individuals who would know what to do, and why they do it. It would carry no burdens of fear or guilt, and require no coercion; it can not be forced into existence, but can only come about through the open-eyes acceptance of education and self-enlightenment. I will not live to see such a world, not as long as parents burden their children with their unjustified beliefs.

Written by brian t

April 30, 2007 at 9:18 pm

beliefs on trial

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Assuming that you’re a “free thinker”, who has avoided or escaped the effects of childhood indoctrination in the religion of your parents or country (a whole ‘nother topic), and is free to decide what to believe or not: imagine it’s a trial, and you are the judge, who has to make a decision based on the evidence.

If you adhere to standards of evidence that would hold up in court, that leads you directly to agnosticism, which started with Thomas Huxley’s ideas: “the foundation of morality is to have done, once and for all, with lying; to give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge.”

It’s a good place to start, but there’s some dispute about the “possibilities of knowledge”, what is knowable and unknowable. Huxley viewed religion as “beyond”, which is similar to the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) proposed by the late Stephen Jay Gould. Richard Dawkins, however, strongly disagreed with Gould on this, and in The God Delusion maintains that theories about the existence of gods are theories about reality, to be subjected to the same scientific scrutiny as any theory would be.

Compare the following two statements:

  • “I do not believe that there are any gods”
  • “I believe that there are no gods”

The difference should be clear:

  • the first could be called agnostic or atheistic, depending on who writes the definition. Going back to the Greek “A Theos”, which translates to “No Theism”, I’d say it fits both definitions.
  • the second is the “hard atheism” stance, which I don’t agree with, because it assumes knowledge of the entire universe throughout its existence. Huxley – who coined the term “agnosticism” – hit the nail on the head in my opinion. Some dictionaries define atheism by this measure.

Now compare the following two statements:

  • “I do not act as if there are any gods watching me”
  • “I act as if there are no gods watching me”

The difference is not as clear, is it? I can say both those things about myself. This is to illustrate how philosophy doesn’t always translate in to the real world as neatly as we might think. So, philosophically, I could use either term to describe myself, but the “catchphrase” I came up with is think agnostic, act atheist.

I think far too much is made of the differences between agnosticism and atheism as philosophies. In this case, the differences between the two last-mentioned statements positions are no real obstacle to deciding how to live your life, on a practical basis.

One problem I see is when religious believers attack atheists with the assumption that they are “hard atheists”, based on simplistic definitions offered by their religious leaders, or even dictionaries (which are themselves a reflection of their time). The reality of modern atheism is far more subtle than that.

How many “hard atheists” (by the second definition) are there, anyway, and do you really need to make such a “statement of belief” to call yourself atheist? The “popular atheists”, from what I’ve read of their work, don’t fit that description. Dawkins in particular is happy to say “I could be wrong”, and so does Sam Harris.

Yet, far too often “allowing for the possibility of gods” is seen as a loophole to exploit, as if the person who says that is just waiting for someone to come along and convince them. Even when a person has an open mind, in a general long-term sense, getting them to adopt a religious belief requires evidence. Simply telling someone “you’re wrong” won’t work, because those are just words, written by people, and they express a view of reality, not reality itself.

This is why I say: think like a judge, or a defense attorney, when it comes to evaluating evidence, starting with what is and is not evidence in the strict sense. To be blunt:

  • What you or someone else saw is not evidence.
  • It’s totally convincing to you, and it changed your life, but it’s not evidence.
  • What someone wrote down is not evidence. (The medium on which something was written can be evidence, but calling it evidence does not make the written words true.)
  • Even when the source is a famous person, known for good works, trusted and believed by millions: it’s not evidence.

The word for all that is testimony, and that does not carry the weight of evidence in a court of law, for very good reasons. As any experienced judge or attorney will tell you: people can, and do, say anything to push their particular views or protect themselves, hence the emphasis on evidence that stands up regardless of human testimony.

Without that, and the freedom to decide without coercion (no tampering with the jury, please), I could not be confident in making a fair and valid decision; so I need to be strict in upholding my standards of evidence against expedience . To leave it up to chance, or “common practice”, or inertia, would be negligence on my part; an abrogation of my rights as a thinking human being, or my responsibilities as a judge in the matter before the court: is religious belief justifiable, based on the available evidence? The verdict, in this court, is a resounding No.

Written by brian t

April 26, 2007 at 5:11 pm

Posted in atheism, religion

double blind

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Today saw the first time, since I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, that I had the chance to discuss my condition with specialists on the condition. After being told that I had MS back in January 2006, I walked out of my neurologist’s office, went home, and heard nothing for over a year. This despite being told that I would be contacted by a MS specialist nurse to discuss treatment options, and that I would be scheduled for follow-up exams. Some one dropped the ball on that one.

Of course, I was in no hurry to go looking for more medical treatment; I was just getting on with life, and work, without any significant disability. I described my symptoms as “annoying”, and no real problem to live with. After my business/vacation trip to the USA in March, however, I was hit by a combination of symptoms that left me feeling I’d aged fifty years while coming down with the flu. I bounced back after about ten days, most of it working from home. It looked suspiciously like a MS relapse, thus confirming the diagnosis, so I called up the hospital, who scheduled me for the MS Review clinic I had heard about.

The first order of business today was to confirm that what happened last month; was it a MS relapse or not? The consensus was that it was; the fatigue and loss of motor control were classic signs. The way I’d recovered so quickly was odd to me, but not to the specialists, who were quite used to it.

The hospital I go to, St. Vincent’s in South Dublin, is affiliated with the nearby University College Dublin, where they are doing research into MS, so you can probably guess what happened next: they wanted my blood, and a lot of it. Ten 5ml vials in total, going to various places, for various forms of analysis; the usual general health screens, plus some extra tests, including DNA sequencing.

So I’m back on the track regarding MS treatment, and I have some options for treatment. At the time of my initial diagnosis, my neurologist and I agreed that I did not need to start any treatment at that time. Now that I’ve had a relapse, the picture is different, and it’s time to start thinking about future relapses, and how drugs can reduce their frequency and ameliorate their severity. (Do I get bonus points for finding a use for the ten-dollar word ameliorate?)

The most interesting treatment option, by far, is an invitation to join the Phase III double-blind trial of an upcoming MS therapy called FTY720. Some details about the drug and its current status can be found at the following link. This is the last phase of trials, designed to generate the data that the manufacturer needs before they can submit the drug for approval.

The “unique selling point” for this drug is that it’s the first made-for-MS treatment that comes in capsule form, to be taken orally; all the other current therapies are administered by injection. That would not be a show-stopper for me, I suppose, but their efficacy in reducing the incidence of relapses – about 30% – means that I’d think carefully before accepting such a treatment regime. I’d have to start one of those straight away, and it would take years of injections before anyone could say whether it’s doing me any good.

So, I think I will volunteer for the FTY720 trial. Not only do I have an interest in furthering research and helping it to market; I have the luxury of a mild MS condition that means I can experiment with treatments. The double-blind nature of the trial means that I could conceivably be given a placebo, and effectively have no treatment for the two-year duration of the trial. I can afford to take that risk.

Written by brian t

April 23, 2007 at 3:40 pm

Posted in multiple sclerosis

lumbering pottering

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A Saturday at home, with my energy levels back to normal. I’ve been taking advantage of the fine weather to stay indoors, giving my bedroom a top-to-bottom cleaning. Windows and walls first, cleaning off a strange black dust that may be fungal. It might be a sign of damp, which would be odd considering I’m on the top of a 3-floor building that doesn’t leak. It’s only happening on the inside of the external wall in that room, and it may have something to do with its construction; under the flaking wallpaper is a layer of galvanized steel, and I have no idea why.

While cleaning the wall I had my Bluetooth headphones on, catching up on podcasts, but anyone watching me would have been bemused by some of my odd expressions and exclamations as I was on my knees with brush and cloth. You can share the experience I had; head off to Neil Gaiman’s web site, and enjoy Neil’s reading of his short story How To Talk To Girls At Parties. The story is included in his Fragile Things anthology, which I bought last weekend but haven’t started yet. Hilariously surreal, it follows a couple of teenage boys as they blag their way in to a party with some most unusual guests.

With the curtains washed, rehung, and closed to dry, and parts of the carpet wet, I’ve been doing more laundry, making lunch, and have settled down with coffee to watch the Grand National at Aintree. One false start, struggles to get the riders lined up, but … They’re Off!

Written by brian t

April 14, 2007 at 3:25 pm

Posted in life, work

evidentially atheist

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In the last half-year or so, several popular books have thrust atheism and atheists in to the media spotlight. The response from religious writers has been varied, with some turning away, and others becoming aggressive in their reactions.

One all-too-common response has been to start using religious terminology to describe atheists and their activities: “fundamentalist atheism”, “atheists sermons”, “crusades against religion”. (The word “crusade” is derived from the same root as “cross”.) This became very annoying, very quickly, and I soon learned to use such language to judge the integrity of an article on the topic.

The annoyance lies in the viewpoint, expressed subtly or unsubtly in such articles, that atheism is just another form of irrational belief. The implication, which I totally reject, is that atheists have dropped one form of irrational belief (a religion) and replaced it with another irrational belief. Then, by talking about it at all, they are “proselytizing”, they have become “evangelistic” about atheism.

The “F-Bomb” in such discussions is not the one you might think of, but “fundamentalism”. That is a false charge, a “straw man” theists string up to beat on. Refuting it is easy; all it takes is for the other side to pay attention, but all too often the sides in a debate end up talking past each other.

If you examine just one aspect of “fundamentalism”, the idea of beliefs that are solid and unshakable, you can see the problem straight away. Scientific theories are hardly immutable, or guaranteed, over time, and much of it can be counter-intuitive.

My beliefs are robust, with healthy roots, but they are not unshakeable. If I need to move them, I can; it would not be painful or destructive, all I would need is a good reason. However, in 25 years of acknowledged atheism (using the word), nothing has come along that would persuade me to adopt a belief in any supernatural entity. There is simply no evidence for it.

Now, some believers say “I have faith, and don’t need evidence”, and I need say no more about that. Others, however, say “but there is evidence, right here”. But what do we mean by evidence? This is, in my view, a key differentiator, and the main point of this article. Let me state clearly what I understand as evidence, and what is not evidence.

It starts with an understanding that mankind is not important. We and our big brains were not always here to look at the world the way we do, and as we evolved, we went through different levels of brain power on the way. Before there was abstract reasoning there was practical knowledge, on how to survive, then live, then enjoy ourselves and think beyond our immediate difficulties.

All of this is just a blip on the universal radar, the last minute in a 24-hour day. The stars, while not unchanging, have been steady enough for us to rely on, to make predictions on. This planet has been less static, over billions of years, but it is a rock of stability compare to people, with their self-centric view of the world. We are simply not that reliable, as witnesses, even over short periods of time, never mind over millennia.

What does this tell us about standards of evidence? In short: the most reliable evidence is which people can go to Nature for; if that connection is broken, because of time and distance. If the primary source for evidence is a person, or the work of a person, it can’t be trusted; it might correspond with nature, and then nature is the primary source.

An example of good evidence: Copernicus did not set out to overturn the established wisdom, that the Earth was the centre of the universe; he made observations, did calculations, and came to the conclusion that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Later, Galileo checked Copernicus’ work against the sky, came to the same conclusions, and got in to a lot of trouble. Note how the primary evidence was not Copernicus’ writings; it was in the skies, and the passage of decades did not diminish it. Amateur astronomers today can verify it with a minimum of skills and equipment, and do so regularly.

An example of bad evidence: scriptures, such as the Bible and Qu’Ran. They are books; that is, the works of man, and therefore devolved from nature by layers of human imagination and interpretation. Some say these scriptures are divinely inspired, and contain universal truth, but what supports such assertions? The books themselves? That is a circular argument. Authority? Authorities are still people, with their own wishes and failings. Positive results? People can do good, and bad, with or without religion – we have evidence of that from parts of world that have never seen a scripture of any kind.

So if you can’t trust scriptures, and can’t trust authority, what is left? Again, we can go back to nature. This is why Atheism is called a “naturalist” view of the world. Two different people can look at nature, one sees the hand of God, and the other does not. Who is right? Put the question more simply: one person sees something specific, or hears a specific sound, and the other does not. No, you can’t fairly claim that one person is blind, or deaf; that is evading the wider question.

The more rational explanation, based on experience of people and their capacity for self-delusion, is that the sound did not occur; the specific vision did not appear; that Nature does not need people, and their particular supernatural interpretations of it, to be what it is. It was here long before we were, and will be here after we have gone. We are fickle and unreliable by comparison.

There are scientists who adhere to scientific principles in their work, yet hold personal religious beliefs. It would be hypocritical of me to practice amateur psychology on them, considering how much I hate it when people try that on me, so I will merely allude to what others have said, on the ability of people to separate work activities from personal life, and don’t see much more significance there. I certainly do not accept that the existence of religious scientists – i.e. people – is any kind of validation of their particular religion. I don’t presume to know what they’re thinking, and statements from e.g. Francis Collins on the topic have been unsatisfying.

Lastly, going back all the way: religious believers have “creation myths” that (in their view) fully explain how the universe started. Scientists only have “theories”, such as the Big Bang theory, which was the logical result of empirical evidence (red shift of stellar spectra in all directions). Is that a complete, satisfying answer? No; there remains the question of what was “behind” the Big Bang, the question of causation. We’re trying to find out, but today we don’t know, and that’s a gap in knowledge that theists exploit. This is an issue I’ve touched on before; are you strong enough to tolerate uncertainty and say “we don’t know”, or must you fill a gap in your knowledge with … something… anything?

Written by brian t

April 5, 2007 at 7:16 am

location, location, location

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Since the middle of last week I’ve been feeling a lot better, and as the previous post hinted, the belated arrival of Spring in Dublin is also serving to lighten the gloom. So, let me take a little time to put down a controversial idea I’ve had for some time, but which I need to express carefully.

In my view of the world, one where religion and other beliefs are no justification for anything that harms anyone else, Israel is a major destabilizing force in the Middle East today. It is held together by the sheer will of a vigilant Israeli people, who have resisted onslaughts from all sides – military, political and economic – with the material support of the United States in particular. It is a country in which most young people – men and women alike – serve in the military, actively and in reserve.

After centuries in the wilderness of Diaspora, the state of Israel was founded in 1948, and since then has been the focal point of Islamic aggression. America’s support for Israel is an oft-given reason for the rise of Al-Qaeda terrorism. I have no patience for Islamic theocratic imperialism, the Allah-given drive to subjugate the world under the Mullahs. Though I am not keen on Nationalism in any form, I fully support the rights of the Israeli people, as any people, to self-determination, independence, and a homeland they can call their own.

But why, oh why, did they have to put the homeland there?

The answer is, of course, religion. One of the founders of Zionism in the United Kingdom, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, was a chemist whose process for mass production of acetone made a huge difference to British arms production in World War I: it was a major component of cordite, used in smokeless gunpowder. It gave Weizmann friends in high places, and direct influence over David Lloyd-George (Munitions Minister, then Prime Minister 1908-1915), and Lord Balfour (former Prime Minister, and Foreign Secretary 1916-19).

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, produced after a decade of urging by Weizmann, expressed Britain’s support for a “National Home” for Jewish people in what was then called Palestine. As reported in Lord Balfour’s biography (quoted in the Wikipedia article), Balfour had actually asked Weizmann, back in 1906, “why there”? His reply cited the historic connection of the Israeli people to the region, and he also said “anything less would be idolatry”. A curious turn of phrase: “idolatry”, as in “false worship”? As in Islam, this reverence for a mere piece of land explains much.

The wording of the Declaration is cautious, even conservative, insistent that no harm was done to existing non-Jewish people in the region. The idea of a sovereign state was played down at the time. Palestine was a British Mandate from 1920 to 1948, but Britain gradually lost control as their tacit approval of an Israeli state led to mass immigration. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the fallout from the Holocaust and further migration of Holocaust survivors in to the region, and Israeli attacks on British forces in the region, led Britain to call in the newly-formed United Nations to manage their abdication of control over Palestine.

The 1947 UN Partition Plan map is a mess, to be blunt; a compromise that tried to please everyone, and ended up pleasing no-one. The Wars of the next 30 years were the obvious instances of trouble, but there is a different kind of bomb ticking in Gaza; a demographic bomb. The Gaza Strip has a very high birth rate, and extrapolation of the 2005 UNESCO figures predicts a 44% population increase in 10 years, to over 2 million, with a population density approaching Hong Kong’s (5,700 per km²).

Today, I am concerned that the United States, having squandered most of its political capital in the Middle East, will leave Israel more exposed to attack. I thought the Hezbollah attacks on Israel in 2006 were insane, unrealistic, poorly planned and totally counter-productive; but they happened anyway. Israel will not be seriously endangered by such tactics any time soon.

No, my real concerns are long term; 10, 20, 50 years from now, when the USA may be hampered by oil shortages and domestic turmoil, and politically estranged from its allies far away. What happens when Egypt’s swing to the right puts an anti-democratic caliphate in place? When Saudi Arabia, its crude oil pipeline to the USA drying up, no longer needs to curry favour in Washington DC? When Lebanon becomes an extension of Syria, and Palestinian extremism distracts Jordan?

The fate of a small nation, isolated among enemies, without powerful allies, is a game that has been played out many times before, on paper, in computer simulation, and on the cold ground. The resolute Allies saw to Germany in World War II, but a more apt example is the Roman destruction of Israel in 66-73 CE; the impersonal, crushing response to a Jewish rebellion over religion.

I don’t know what the answer is; but if I was in charge of Israel’s long-term defence, I would be looking at every option, and a strategic withdrawal of the Jewish people from the region would be such an option. Then again, I am not one to invest a piece of ground with holy provenance; I would be left with mere history, and “I was here first” is no defence against an enemy who is equally tied to the same ground, for equally religious (i.e. irrational) reasons. An enemy who, by sheer birthrate and irrational blindness to consequences, has much to gain from Israel’s removal. I don’t like it – but that is no shield against reality, when it arrives.

Written by brian t

April 4, 2007 at 9:04 pm

shallow winter

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all fools’ day, the belated spring
twitched his moist nose over the crest
of the brown earth bordering the hole
in which he had overslept
the winter that had held him unconscious
beyond his regularly scheduled waking

what it lacked in depth it offered as length
not as bluntly cold as years before, but sullenly
clinging to the clammy walls of his emerald den
far from the sun behind high cloud
in shades of monochromatic grey

stretches its legs
shakes out the knots in its sinews
and pauses in consternation
is it safe to stay outside, today?

Written by brian t

April 2, 2007 at 10:02 pm

Posted in ireland, life, poetry