Sunday, November 13, 2005

How We Believe by Michael Shermer

I loved this book. There is a spooky similarity between my story and Michael's account of his personal journey from conventional belief. His book lays out just about everything you can say about why people believe in God. But I think I have one more for you.

He talks about "frontal lobe seisures" as explanation for other-worldly experiences. I think there is an experience that's more down to Earth. It underlies the main reason people believe in God (the impressive order and beauty of the Universe).

As Michael points out, we have an illlusion that we're sitting in a "theator of the mind", watching the world roll by on the big screen. We are completely unaware of the fact that everything on the screen is alive. It is constructed by a dynamic mental process that cannot work properly if it doesn't hide its nature. We need to see the world as world, not as mental construct.

But sometimes, the mental nature of what we're seeing is not so well hidden. Drugs can do it (LSD), but ordinary experience can also do it. When we're looking at the Milky Way on a clear night or a spectacular moonlit winter scene, it seems like the world is looking back at you. It's what the theologians call the "I / Thou" experience. You feel certain there's a mind behind all that beauty. There is. It's you.

To put it in somewhat drier terms, the affective content of what we perceive is naturally projected onto the thing perceived. I do not feel beauty -- i see beautiful things. I do not feel awe when I see the night sky -- the universe is awesome.

I've experienced this a few times myself and I know of people whose lives were changed by this. I expect that it's pretty common. Once you put a name to it, you might find that it's a very important motivation behind religious belief, especially for those who claim to see God in all the complexity of the Universe. This isn't just a logical argument. It's an observation

Friday, October 28, 2005

Information Leaks into Creationist Thinking

I'm struggling to expand my knowledge of Biology so I can get my mind around the origin of life. I can certainly agree that it's a mind-blowing subject. I'd say "awesome" -- some would say "miraculous".

I don't think that bickering about Biblical "teachings" gets us anywhere. People who believe in the literal truth of the Bible are a small minority of Christians -- mostly confined to the US The creation debate needs to be re-framed in more concrete terms.

I think that Werner Gitt has done us all a big favour by being so spectacularly wrong about just the right question: Where did all this information come from? Boil away the froth from Gitt's argument and you get that the world is a message from God. This is sophistry at its finest, but I think he's on the right track.

Information and entropy are paired. Things tend to run downhill, decreasing information and increasing entropy (Laws of Thermodynamics). Increasing information corresponds to orderd, unlikely situations. For example, proteins are made of common elements, but they don't form on their own. You need to invest energy. Proteins and their constituents are very unlikely configurations of matter. In our world, they are created only by life. Of course, life can't exist without proteins, so we have another problem that can easily be turned into recruiting propaganda by the fundamentalists.Personally, I think it's a very, very interesting problem and it's right at the root of the creation debate. It boils down to (a) Where did the energy come from (b) what were the conditions of the reaction and (c) what, exactly was the sequence of steps that lead to the first protein being formed? We don't know the answers to these questions, but I don't expect to find them in the Bible.

Personally, I find that biologists talk their way around this problem in much the same way that fundamentalists talk their way around DNA. There's a lot of dogmatism on both sides. I think we'll eventually figure this out and there will be some big surprizes. Even so, I don't expect to find God's fingerprints in the solution. I do expect that the fundamentalists will happily absorb the new information into their world view.

One more comment on evolution:
As I read it, Darwin didn't make his case for the "Origin of Species". He nailed the case for evolution, but (as far as I know) didn't provide strong evidence for the formation of species. This is a loophole that creationists like to drive through, pretending that evolutionary thought ended with Darwin. The embarassing similarity of the human genome with chimpanzees and even mice and crayfish is the "missing link". The problem is that fundamentalists would rather fight "straw man" evidence such as "gaps" in the fossil record. They thrive on areas where lots of uncertainty exists and steer clear of evidence that blows them out of the water.

It's clear from DNA that we all descended from a common "family tree". The evolutionary record is complete down to the last protein. The only question is how did evolution occur? Survival of the fittest doesn't answer this question, but the question is easily answered. All you need to do is break up an existing population so sub-populations can't interbreed. Natural selection and genetic drift will very quickly drive the sub-populations in different genetic directions, resulting in different species. Fragmentation of populations tends to occur in times of major environmental upheaval, which gives you the "punctuated equilibrium" picture. No great mystery. Continantal drift, asteroid strikes and major climactic changes are all well-documented influences that can break up populations and kick off a flurry of genetic "experimentation".

I've built some computer models that illustrate genetic drift and survival of the fittest. They're worthless as serious Scientific work, but they've convinced me that major gene pool changes take place very quickly. For example, in one of my models a gene has an allele that's slightly less adaptive (10% fewer young). It's flushed out of the populatin in 20 generations. Slow in terms of a single lifetime, but lightning quick in geological time. It just give me a feeling for the subject -- nothiing more.

All about Werner Gitt:

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Marching Zombies Strike London

I write these words as the press digs into its bag of clichés to tell us what to think about today’s terrorist attacks on the people of London. Around the world, officials scramble to protect their busses and subway systems against attacks from “Islamist extremists”. We are again reminded of the terrible truth that we’re at war. Even more unsettling is the obvious fact that we are totally defenseless. Anyone who gave a passing thought to the situation over the last few years has shaken his head at security checks that confiscated nail clippers and had us remove our shoes as if the enemy was somehow magically deprived of imagination, forced to repeat past strategies and give themselves up to minimum wage security guards.

To my mind, the most alarming element of all this is that we have still failed to come to grips with who the enemy is and where the battle must be fought if we are to have the slightest chance of winning. We are not going to end this war by checking each other’s shoes.

In the 11th Century 100,000 bloodthirsty, illiterate barbarians descended on the civilized world of the Middle East, destroying entire cities, killing and sometimes eating the inhabitants. The Church in Rome had encouraged them to suspend their disbelief permanently and commit themselves to the slaughter of anyone they came across in exchange for an assured seat in Heaven. Just as "insurgents" in Iraq are happy to kill 100 Muslims for every American, the Crusaders killed a lot more Christians than Muslims.

As far as I know, this is the first instance in history of a genuine zombie army.
What is so scary about a zombie army? Well, you can’t kill them because they’re already dead. And if you blow one up, ten more will take its place. A zombie has no soul. It’s just a body rampaging around with nothing to lose.

How do you make a zombie? You convince a regular human being that this world isn’t real. True reality is paradise, where you and your pals will party forever. Your own physical existence is meaningless except as a ticket to paradise. With the meaning of your own daily existence faded to shades of grey, the lives of others become similarly insignificant. Among your tight little circle of friends, you can spend the last few days celebrating your immanent departure from this world of corruption and your joyous transition to eternal reality. Of course, this is pretty crazy. Few people will suspend disbelief to the point of committing suicide and/or killing innocent people. But that’s OK. A few poor souls will have the ability to surrender their normal mental faculties and convert themselves into mindless weapons.

All Muslims are not zombies and not all zombies are Muslim. We need to be clear about this. Transition to the zombie state is an extreme case of a natural process. In fact, it is an aberration of a state of mind that is uniquely human. It’s called “suspension of disbelief”.

We are the story telling ape. We love to tell each other stories. Our pulses quicken as fictional heroes battle imaginary villains in fanciful environments. I have personally watched eight movies in the last week and enjoyed them all. These include “Alien”, a totally preposterous story that nonetheless “pushed my buttons” and got me gripping the arms of my chair. But there was no chance whatsoever that I would think that this story could actually happen in the “real world”.

I’m not offended by the annual hoaxes of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I don’t expect to see real ghosts or goblins at Halloween. When I was a child, I wore a coon skin cap like Disney’s version of Davy Crocket, but I would be alarmed to board a jet aircraft and see the pilot wearing a coon skin cap. Those of us who have their brains working normally have an easy and automatic ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. However, like all abilities, this ability to suspend disbelief (or not) is not equally distributed among the population. Like any ability, it can be exploited and used for destructive purposes. Some unfortunate people are unable to suspend disbelief. They are bored by movies. They don't read novels. Others spend their lives completely lost in fantasy worlds.

Sadly, there are many on “our” side in this conflict who are very nervous about this point. This cripples our response to the emergency, turning the conflict into a war between “Islamist Extremists” and “Right Wing Christian Fundamentalists”. The fact is that the enthusiastic extremists of any religion are reluctant to admit that they have abandoned their citizenship in the real world and pathologically abandoned disbelief. In my experience, people are offended when you refer to religious myths as “just” stories. While professional religious personnel (priests, ministers etc) are educated to appreciate the deep value of these “stories”, this appreciation is not communicated to the masses, who are left without the intellectual tools to understand (and value) their own suspension of disbelief. They are left without the understanding that this ability is extremely valuable (essential, even) but also uniquely dangerous.

If we are to win this war, we need to respectfully disentangle people from their abandonment of disbelief. While we need to draw on our rich cultural heritage of stories and mythical images, we also need to take up full citizenship in the real physical world. There will always be people who abandon the real world in favor of a mythical world. We can never disallow such mental journeys. However, we should understand that people who pull up stakes in the real world can be very dangerous to those of use who are left behind.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

It seems to me that we all have one basic decision to make in life: Does the world revolve around us or are we in the world. Do we make sense of our experience by thinking about it or by exploring the world?

Both of these decisions make some sort of sense. Most people don't come down firmly on one side or the other, leading to serious confusion.

Throughout most of human history, it made perfect sense to think that the world was made by a being with a human personality. Rocks and stones had wishes and goals. The stars were stuck on a bowl that stretched over the sphere of human action. During that time, which shades into our historical past, major religions arose and cast this worldview in stone and set it at the centre of their faith.

The second world view emerged gradually and could only be clearly seen in the broad light of day when people like Galileo and Copernicus dared to challenge the idea of the Earth Centered universe (and therefore a human-centred universe). Copernicus feared the Church so much he didn't publish his results for years. Galileo was threatened with torture and spent his final years in house arrest. At that point, the battle was joined and clearly defined. Since then, the contest has become broader and muddier.
Charles Darwin made more waves when he challenged the idea that humans had a special place in the natural world. The Human-centred view insisted that we had a special place in nature, whether or not we accept the Genesis story as literal proof.

Even at the beginning of 20th century, we thought that the sun was the centre of the universe. Hubble exploded that myth by showing that the universe consists of hundreds of billions of galaxies like our own. It is now quite clear that whatever our importance may be in our own eyes, we occupy no special place in nature.

To many people, including myself, there is no longer any question about how we should explain our experience of the world. Facts override theory. Experiments trump hopeful dreams. Real exploration replaces fantasy. Most importantly, we take responsibility for our own lives. God won’t fix it. “Good and bad” are what we say they are – the Universe doesn’t care. Bad guys don’t go to Hell. Good people don’t go to Heaven. We must learn to live with the Universe as it is and leave our fantasies behind.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

What, If Anything Is A Conservative?

Politics is simple. There are two natural political doctrines:

Every person is as important as any other.
Every dollar is as important as any other.

“Democracies” try to work on the first principal, hoping that everyone’s vote will count as much as anyone else’s. In theory, the resulting policies will benefit everyone equally. At the same time, the parallel system is at work everywhere and at all times. It’s called the marketplace. Society’s resources simply go to the highest bidder.

In other words, the fundamental political struggle is between the rich, who naturally want to each of their dollars to count and the masses, who think it’s only fair that each warm body should count.

A third factor comes into play: the use of force. If the police work solely for the “dollar people”, we have fascism. If the police work solely for the “people” we have communism. In practice, both sides have at least some power and the resulting system settles down somewhere in the middle as a “liberal democracy” or some such hybrid. In such a system, the political parties will assume confusing labels. “People” parties will adopt names with “Democratic” and “Social” in them, signaling a preference for the “people” point of view. The “dollar” people never come out and baldly say what they stand for. Most often, they call themselves “conservative”. This is misleading. They should instead call themselves the “Business” party or the “Bottom Line” party. They are not conservative.

What does “conservative” mean? We’re supposed to think that “conservatives” want to hang on to the tried and true values of the past. Stuff like “family values” and “small business”. They seem to stand for cautious change. But they don’t. Conservatives want lots of changes. The changes they oppose are the ones the “people” want. They don’t want universal medical insurance. They don’t want to raise the minimum wage. They oppose any change that will give all people, rich and poor, the same access to resources. They want all resources to go to the highest bidder.

There is no moral high ground here. If you’re poor, you’ll want resources divided equally. If you’re rich, you’ll be happy to bid for resources. To put it another way, if you can afford everything you need to be comfortable, you’ll be happy with the status quo. If you can’t afford something you need (like a heart transplant), you’ll favor measures that make those things available to everyone equally.

It’s that simple.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


I really have a big, big problem with "Objectivism", starting with the name, which implies that it's a philosophy somehow based on "objective" thinking. Here's a link to a paper I wrote for one of my friends who had recently converted.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Fences and Windows

For those of us whoare in need of a crash course in the real agenda of "globalism", I recommend Naomi Klein's "Fences and Windows"

For me, the most striking passage in the book was a quote from the Canadian Trade Minister, Pierre Pettigrew, who said "the victims [of globalization] are not only exploited, theyre excluded ... You may be in a situation where you are not needed to create that wealth. This phenomenon of exclusion is far more radical than the phenomenon of exploitation". I think this is at the core to objections to globalization: it tends to put "useless" people on the trash heap, sometimes entire populations at a time. Economic policies are rammed down the throats of common people with the unstated (and false) assumption that economic "growth" and "progress" will somehow "trickle down" to welfare of the common person. Associated with this is the "trust us" mentality of the poweful players who push aside democratic institutions to "save" countries whose economies are in trouble, often due to earlier rounds of globalization.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Smart Bombs for Miami

Responding to 9/11, Bush declared war on all international terrorists and countries that shelter them. I'm still waiting for the marines to invade Miami and wipe out all those US Government sponsored terrorists that have been spreading chaos in Cuba all these years. I also expect the American sponsors of terrorism in Nicaragua to be brought to justice swiftly.

Or maybe not :)

Here is a Cuban take on the issue. It's a little heated, but they have a right to be pissed off.

Monday, October 25, 2004


In a recent CNN documentary on the religious right wing, there was an interview with a little girl, maybe seven years old, who seemed to be unable to say anything but the evangelical “talking points”. She was, for example, convinced that she was a sinner before she gave her life to Jesus. She was quite sure that people who were not “washed in the blood” were going to Hell.

She reminded me of all the little kids in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who are being trained to hate Israel and curse America from the time they’re able to stand up on their own.

Equally disturbing was the ramrod certainty expressed by adult members of the evangelical movement. They were absolutely certain that God, Satan, Heaven and Hell are real. Everyone waited eagerly to be swept up into Heaven any time now.

When it comes to Christian theology, I don’t feel that I speak as an outsider. During my “Christian Years”, I became very familiar with the Bible and Church History. I am also familiar enough with various other religions to know that there is nothing really remarkable about Christian theology. It’s developed over the centuries in fairly well-understood ways. For example, the Trinity and Limbo were ideas developed by specific people at specific times for specific reasons. They are no more “divinely inspired” than the General Sales Tax (GST). Other religions suffer from this type of historical embellishment. The simple doctrine of Buddha somehow wound up with prayer wheels. Taoism, a doctrine of pristine simplicity, became weighed down with elaborate ritual.

In the case of Christianity, the Book of Revelation is one of those barnacles on the ship of the Christian faith. It’s a bit of a mystery why the book was included in the Canon. It’s an imaginative diatribe aimed at the evils of the Roman Empire. The genre is unfamiliar to modern readers. The closest modern parallel would be the dystopia like George Orwell’s 1984.
Religious right-wingers are famous for their inability to read anything between the covers of the Bible as anything but a literal message from God. This is a fatal mistake. Most obviously, they base much of their doctrine on writings that more sober readers easily recognize as fanciful. This is the same mistake that fundamentalist Muslims make when they base their religious beliefs on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Their mind-set is immune to evidence. It is intolerant of other views (even within their own congregations). It denies the obvious fact that religions change and grow over the centuries. Strangely, it is blind to the fact that Evangelical orthodoxy itself is a brand-new fabrication of the American South. While they pretend to be the gatekeepers of ancient wisdom, they are, in fact, isolated in the way they interpret the Christian heritage. For They are “book worshippers”, pretending to base everything on the eternal Word of God (such as their opposition to stem cell research !!).

In the Catholic tradition (which can at least lay claim to an ancient history), the clergy interprets the religion for the masses. This obviously has some disadvantages, but it leads to a rather more sensible approach to the Bible. Protestants tend to reject authority and allow people to approach God on their own (as do the Muslims, in theory). This leaves people to read the Bible for themselves and come to their own conclusions. The Evangelicals combine the worst of both worlds. They permit and encourage weird interpretations of the Bible but insist that *their* interpretations are the only valid ones. Evangelicals are free to accept the party line or burn in Hell.

Readers of this blog will know that I have little patience for religious doctrine in general. Wondering whether there is or is not a Hell is pretty much like wondering if Superman sweats. Just the same, you need to accept people where they are on their personal journey. To these people, I’d just like to recommend that they take a good look around them, think for themselves and talk to their neighbours. In the special case of Christians, I'd like to challenge them with this question: Do you see the Jesus of the Gospels forcing his opinions on anyone? Was He a friend or foe of rigid orthodoxy?

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Just When You Thought You Could Sleep At Night

I’ve been doing a little reading lately to remind myself of the really big problems we face. It’s easy to get wound up about how George Bush is fucking up the relatively simple problems of international relations. We could easily think that we just need to flush out the idiots in high places and we’d have clear sailing from then on. Sadly, this is not so. And I’m *not* talking about the environment (which is a whole different can of worms).

One World, Ready or Not by William Greider

This is an introduction to the problem of globalization, which is not just that it benefits the rich at the expense of third world countries. You got a teeny glimpse of the problem in John Kerry’s boilerplate about the issue of “exporting” jobs. In fact, there is no unemployment problem in the US (the rate is under 5%). The problem is that entire industries are being “shipped overseas”. To listen to Kerry, you’d think the US companies who “outsource” are somehow to blame. He talks about making US jobs more attractive by policies that the US routinely complains about when Canada implements them (for example, universal Health Care is a “subsidy”).

This misses the point. The problem is that the labor market is now global, which means that $30 per hour Tennessee metal benders are competing with $12 per month workers in Shanghai. This is an unstable situation and it’s hard to see how it will settle down without the elimination of the US metal bending industry (not just the downsizing, reorganizing). There’s no way the US workers will allow their benefits to be cut fast enough to avoid “outsourcing” the industry to Asia. This applies to all industries, including my own (computer programming), which is being “outsourced” to India at a heady rate.

The book gets deeply into the Global capital market and takes us on tours of the "sweatshops" in China, Mexico and Thialand. What emerges is a comprehensive picture of globalization. The book paints a pretty scary picture. Predictably, it ends with a long list of recommendations for fixing things. Also predictably, the recommendations are less impressive than his analysis of the problem. However, in the course of explaining his program to save the world, he makes one crucial point. Our statistics of economic "growth" ignore substantial hidden costs, such as the cost of declining non-renewable resources, the cost of environmental destruction and so forth. It's as if we have a golden goose and we're cheering the golden eggs but ignoring the fact that we're killing the goose. A practical example: where, in the accounts of the nation, did we account for the destruction of the Cod fishery? When Canada was young, this fishery was once the backbone of our economy. When we cheerfully counting revenue from the fishery, where did we account for the fact that we were destroying the fishery? On a similar subject, where do we account for our declining oill and gas reserves? We pretend that we're just pulling money out of the ground, when, in fact, we're selling our inventory. This way of thinking encourages us to "cash in" all that "free" oil and prevents us from thinking that it might be smarter to leave it in the ground for 50 years when it will probably be worth $500 a barrel.

Greider suggests that, if we accounted for these types of cost, we would see that our "gross national product" is actually declining.

World on Fire by Amy Chua

The thesis here is simple but fatal to the basic assumptions of Western foreign policy. The orthodox view is that we should be promoting democracy and economic development in the “third world”. The problem is that economic “development” almost always amounts to creating a rich, privileged (and heavily armed) class. “Democracy” means the poor folks should have as much clout as rich folks. This spells revolution and bloody oppression. Amy Chua argues convincingly that that the twin aims of democratization and economic development are spreading bloody revolution around the world.

The bottom line is that we’re headed for a big mess in the 21st century with or without the “War on Terror”, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, the collapsing environment, pollution, global warming and all the rest. If New York is still above water 100 years from now, it might look a lot like New Delhi.

Monday, October 04, 2004

"Bush Think" Gets and Airing

It's encouraging to see that Bush is having some trouble slipping his bullshit by the electorate. His performance on the first debate cost him his narrow lead. Something likek 65% of viewers thought Kerry "won" the debate. Of course, most Republicans won't change their vote even if Kerry makes more sense than Bush.

The debate pissed me off so bad I lost sleep that night. I kept waking up in a rage over something that probably slipped right by most viewers. I'm bothered by Bush's characterization of the "enemy" in his so-called "war on terror". Even years after the crap about Saddam being behind 9/11, many Americans still connect the Iraq war to 9/11. Chaney never lets up on this, even without a shred of evidence and in the face of the obvious implausibility of a link between Osama and Saddam. But the lie that gets me so upset is more subtle than that. Here is what we're supposed to swallow now as a justification of $200 billion down the drain, over 1,000 Americans dead and tens of thousands of Iraqi's dead and/or wounded.

1. All terrorists are part of a worldwide conspiracy. In practice, the Bush administration gets to say who is a "real" terrorist and who isn't. This logic allows Cheney to equate Saddam's contribution to the family of Palistinian martyrs to support of Osama Bin Lauden. Along with all his other blind spots, Bush cannot really come to terms with the fact that Israel is enthusiastically hated throughout the Muslim world for reasons that are perfectly understandable. Support for the Palistinian cause comes from all over the Arab world. It's a motherhood issue there.

2. Terrorists hate us. They hate liberty. Their goal is to take away everything we value. This flies in the face of everything we know about terrorism in general and Osama in particular. Far from hating freedom, they are mostly fighting to obtain it. For example, the Chechnians want the Russians out of their country. Osama wants the Americans out of Muslim countries and he wants despots like Saddam deposed. Terrorism has been the tool of choice for independence movements since Roman times. The fact is that disenfranchised groups don't have the luxury of dropping "precision weapons" on thousands of civilians. That's not terrorism. Terrorism is armed resistance to the status quo. I can't resist pointing out that the "status quo" was maintained for the second half of the 20th century by nucear terror. There is only one country in the world still capable of terrorizing the entire world.

3. There are a short list of possible targets of terrorism. Bush is doing a credible imitiation of a complete fool on this issue and Kerry isn't far behind. As pointed out in the debate, the ports are still wide open. Transport trucks can get close to a virtually unlimited number of high-value soft targets (think of Oklahoma times 10). Our water supplies are open to contamination. There is no effective control over radioactive materials used in Science and Medicine. Control over the nuclear arsenal of the USSR is sloppy at best. The list goes on and on and on. This is the fact: the terrorists will hit us again and again for the forseeable future. Eventually, they will hand us a disaster that makes us wonder what got us so excited about 9/11.

By demonizing the enemy, Bush raises the stakes and buries any hope of piece in rabid rhetoric. Kerry showed a bit more sense when he said that job one in Iraq should be to convince the Iraquis that America has no intention of staying in Iraq. This betrays a glimmering of understanding of the Muslim way of thinking. Resistance to an invader is required of a good Muslim. If you act like a conquerer in a Muslim country, you can expect vigorous resistance. You can also expect a lot of help to arrive from other Muslim countries (as we saw in Afghanistan when the Russians tried to annex it).

It's impossible mount a defence against terrorism that will prevent an endless string of catastrophes. We can bleed ourselves dry trying. On the other hand, terrorism has no "end game". They can cause lots of trouble, but they can't win. This means the war can go on forever (as it has in Palestine, Spain and Columbia), weakening the State without killing it. It's like a Malaria infection, which is an ongoing nuisance. The big danger is from the body's own immune system.

It's sensible to think about what we can do to bring peace in this situation. Step one, I think, is to appreciate where the other side is coming from. They're not demons from Hell. They don't want to deny us our freedoms. They want our attention. They want us out of Muslim countries. They want peace and justice in Palestine and Chechnia. These are not the demans of Satan's agents. I know this is a distasteful point of view (for those who lost loved ones on 9/11, for example), but we cannot end this war without dealing with the enemy. Bush's rabid policies spreads hatred from legitimate enemies to the whole Muslim world. Instead, we need to embrace and respect the Muslim world and hope that we can shed a little light in the dark corridors of the "extremists". Instead of waging a war that turns good Muslims into terrorists by the tens of thousands, we can hope that terrorists will see that there is no need to die (and kill) for causes that can be achieved by peaceful means.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


I have the pictures of six heroes mounted above my desk: Galileo, Newton, Huygens, Darwin, von Neumann and Einstein. The lives and contributions of these men shed a lot of light on my own path. They all made super-human contributions to our understanding of the world we live in. They are all flawed individuals with many failures and setbacks in their resume. They’re both human and superhuman, inspiring me by their illustration of the heights to which ordinary people can climb.

I’d like to talk about Einstein today. If you want to expand your knowledge about this guy, pick up the September, 2004 issue of Scientific American. The issue celebrates the centenary of that most amazing year (1905), when Einstein burst upon the world with four papers in quite different subjects, each worthy of a Nobel Prize. In the same year, he had a Ph. D. dissertation rejected. He resubmitted another (which was accepted) and held down a job as a “Patent Clerk”. I often pictured this job as consisting of sitting in some dimly-lit cubicle filling out forms, but it wasn’t. He did brilliant research work on submitted patents. He was often called upon to testify in court cases involving patents. In his spare time (hah!) he submitted numerous patents of his own. Not your average “clerk”.

All this establishes him in my mind (and just about everybody else’s mind) as a truly exceptional human being. If you are full of questions about the nature of the world and how to discover it, you really need to take a very close look at this guy.All my other heroes stood with one foot in the “dark ages” and one foot in the “modern world”. For example, Galileo famously got into trouble with the Church when he pointed out that Jupiter had moons (so the heavens were not eternally perfect and unchangeable). Darwin raised a stink when he unseated man as the special creation of God. And so on.

We don’t usually think of Einstein in these terms. He was, we think, a thoroughly modern man. His famous (and incorrect) rejection of Quantum Mechanics is remembered by his remark “God does not play dice with the Universe”. He had a way of expressing his point of view with “God talk” even though there is no evidence that he took religion seriously. I used to think that this was just a way of speaking, but I’ve lately come to the view that Einstein did, in fact, accept one fundamental assumption of religion (also incorrectly), that the Universe was elegant and comprehensible. He spent his whole life working from that assumption, which is an aesthetic judgement of the way the Universe should be – a religions attitude.

Of course, many people share this belief and it’s come by honestly. Who could not be struck by the elegance and order of the Natural World? Many people go beyond this by claiming that the wonderful order of nature is evidence that a mind like ours (appreciating elegance, beauty and order) created it all. Who hasn’t felt that way from time to time? Pretty though it is, this common sentiment is not a reliable guide to the inner workings of the world. It ignores things that are not structured. It ignores things that cannot be perceived (99.999% of everything right in front of us). It assumes structure where there is none. It ignores complex, messy structure. It’s just a nice, warm feeling. We need to let it go at that. Einstein, along with more traditional religious thinkers, took it for an actual insight into fundamental principals underlying the world. Great simplifier that he was, he stripped organized religion out of it and left “God” to stand for nothing much than a word for “the order and elegance of the world”. But the basic mistake remained.

Of course, this belief in order and elegance (and his exceptional ability to see it where none had even looked before) lead him to many of his greatest discoveries, which all tended to simplify and unify our understanding of what makes the universe tick. His theories of relativity (special and general) were based on the simplifying and elegant assumption that the laws of physics were "Symmetric". They worked the same everywhere in the universe under similar conditions (moving at a constant speed, accelerating, working in a gravitational field). Even his lesser-known contributions follow this line. For example, he unified the “causes” of permanent magnetism with magnetism induced by an electric field (discovering electron “spin” in the process).

While his faith in order and elegance lead him to his greatest discoveries, it also lead him to his biggest blunders. He assumed the Universe was in a steady state, neither expanding nor contracting. He assumed that the probabilistic elements in Quantum Mechanics would eventually be banished by something more elegant and understandable. He spent the last decades of his life trying to create a theory that would unify Quantum Mechanics and Relativity -- a project that still shows no signs of producing elegant or comprehensible results, if results are to be expected at all.
To his eternal credit, Einstein always bowed to experimental results. He felt that they were the only way of knowing the truth. But sitting in his cage at the zoo at Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, he was encouraged to work on theory only . Einstein had no graduate students to disturb his dreams. He did no experiments to remind him of the solid, inconvenient world of the laboratory. Lost in theory is lost indeed.

Einstein’s article of faith was that there was no phenomenon so weird or complex that he (or someone equally talented) could not develop a “beautiful” theory to describe it. This fundamentally places the human mind in the center of the Universe. Just as Galileo’s Church placed a man-made-God in the center and Darwin’s society placed man himself in the center, Einstein had not completely thrown of the shackles of ancient religion which claims that the Universe is constructed for the convenience of human beings (or their anthropomorphic gods) so that any aspect of it can be “explained” in terms that humans can understand (and actually find “beautiful”).

There is no reason to assume that a complete and accurate theory of the real world will ever be developed by mankind. There is no reason to assume that such a theory is even possible. That shouldn’t stop us from trying. We can shed a little light here and there. But we must not lose track of the difference between fantasy and reality.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004


The wisest commentary I’ve ever read about the difference between the “internal world” and “objective reality” is Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (by Robert M. Pirsig), which you an read for free on-line at

This book is still selling briskly since it was published in 1974. It makes what should be a simple point, but it “goes down hard” because you just don’t hear it anywhere else. The point is (if I’m reading him right):

  1. Aesthetics can’t be derived from any other source. Aesthetics are primary. You can’t really teach people what to like or what is “good”. You “get it” or you don’t.
  2. Aesthetics underlie all human experience, including “Science”. Scientists keep poking around and re-checking their data until they come up with theories that are “elegant” and “powerful”. These are aesthetic criteria.
There is little point in arguing over aesthetics. My favourite little “mini drama” illustrates this:

HE: What’s your favourite color?
SHE: Blue
HE: No, it’s not

One implication of Pirsig’s work is that the way we see the “big picture” is governed by our aesthetic sense. Part of being human is to be unhappy with the aesthetic of the world as it is. We build. We landscape. We're not happy with the cruel nature of the real world. It makes better aesthetic sense that the Universe is somehow kind to “good people” and gets even with “bad people”. It feels better that there is a meaning behind everything that happens, even if it’s not immediately plain what that meaning is. The result is that we want to live in an aesthetically pleasing world and we strongly resist any outside force that makes the world seem aesthetically less pleasing (such as a Godless, meaningless world).

Arguments about the “existence of God” or the “Truth of the Bible” are arguments about aesthetics and therefore pointless, like the argument over favourite colors. Believers often talk about the beauty of nature convincing them of the existence of God. But beauty is obviously an aesthetic judgment. I submit that God is, too. A world without God offends our aesthetic sense. We're likely to insert him into our internal picture of the world to make the world look "right".

This process is quite natural and it occurs in Science as well as Religion. For example, the earth-centered universe made sense to Ptolomy and he went to great lengths tinkering with the orbits of the planets which "must" be based on circles (a "perfect" shape). It's not hard at all to see the world the way Ptolomy saw it. For us, the sun still "rises" and "sets". More obscure examples of this can be found in phlogiston, the fictitous "substance" of fire and the "aether", the equally fictitious substance that pervaded the Universe and served as the stuff that "waved" when light waves travelled through space. These ideas slipped in to our thought without much examination as scaffolding for our thinking.

One of the most common current concepts along these lines is the idea of the "soul", which is pictured as a kind of thing or substance that houses the essence of what we are. This idea supports all kinds of related ideas that make the universe more aesthetically pleasing. Once you have a "thing" like this, you can imagine it invisibly migrating to a higher reality or moving from body to body over the ages, straightening out the the injustices of the "real world" as it goes along.

A much more plausible analogy would be to see the "soul" as a process like a waterfall, but this does not lend itself to all the aesthetic corrections we can make with the "solid soul".

Whether you believe in God and/or soul or not, it's important to understand the role of your personal aesthetic sense plays in the way you see the world.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Resume of a Born Skeptic

People are occasionally amazed at my skeptical attitude and my tendency to "go for the jugular" so quickly. Was I raised by wolves? Was I abused as a child? I don’t think so. I think I can make a good case for being born this way. Here are a few highlights of my career as a skeptic:

At age 4, I suspected the terrible truth about Santa Claus. I couldn’t see how he could visit all those homes in one night. I mounted a successful sting operation that conclusively proved my Parents were behind the conspiracy.

At age 5, a little girl explained the idea of God to me in the school playground. It was an interesting but implausible idea. I filed it with Santa Claus. Years of Sunday School did not change my mind.

My term paper for Grade 12 English was “Is there a God?”  I concluded there wasn’t and outlined my reasons. I debated the local Christian group the same year.

My Master’s Thesis showed that the system used to define a new programming language could produce ambiguous language constructs – programs that “meant” two different things. I also proved that it was impossible to get rid of this flaw in the system.

I was asked to “crunch the numbers” for a survey of mentally ill offenders in Canadian prisons. The psychiatrist in charge was delighted with all the “conclusions” popping out of the computer. I tried to convince him that he was reading mathematical tea leaves. If he saw something “interesting”, he’d need to come up with a theory and re-run the survey on a different population. Nope. He submitted the “tea leaf” report and collected his government grant (Few professionals have a working knowledge of math, statistics or logic).

In a report to the Canadian Government I showed that the most popular way of computerized environmental impact analysis was invalid on mathematical and logical grounds and missed the most important biological considerations. Professional biologists in the Department agreed.

In another Government report, I showed that the method Statistics Canada used to measure airport capacity was invalid. That is, you could get two different results by applying the method twice to the same data.

In my Ministerial training, I met many “men of the cloth”. The proportion of saints and charlatans seems to be about the same among the clergy as is in the general population. However, this just means that there are many who are deliberately pulling the wool over your eyes and many whose own eyes are wool-covered. Leaders who are fervently, honestly misguided are even more dangerous than those who are consciously deceptive. Another guide for skeptics: Just because you're honest doesn't mean you're right.

The Maintenance Director of a European airline was worried that he wasn’t going to get his DC-10 aircraft out of overhaul before the tourist season started (He’d booked them solidly, there was no plan “B”).  He asked me if I thought they’d be ready on time. On the basis of what we were reading in the documentation from the overhaul agency, I told him they’d be late. Not just a little late. Months late. I was fired from the project for my negative attitude. The aircraft were months late.

I have tirelessly attacked the method used in the aviation industry to report component reliability in large fleets. It is statistical nonsense. I have been gratified to see this method slowly fall from favor, although I can’t take personal credit for it.

Skepticism is at the heart of my career in the aviation field. I often spend weeks shoveling out crap from records systems that are required by law to be perfect.

My own ability to think things through and draw the right conclusion must be subjected to constant and brutal skepticism. You can’t survive as a computer programmer otherwise.
I am always skeptical about what clients tell me, whether it’s what they want, what the need or what they do. I am especially skeptical about their stated authority within their organization. Anyone who works as a consultant or provides outside services knows what I’m talking about. Everything needs to be double and triple checked. Needs change. Perceptions change. Personnel change. And everything everyone says has an element of bullshit.

In all these cases, you see a similar thread at work. I’m not attacking the system. I’m genuinely trying to understand the system. In many cases, I’m able to fix the flaws I find. I don’t attack from the outside. I’m usually trying to shed a little more light on the activities that I’m actually involved in myself. I’m advocating a better way. Admittedly, I have little patience for the tender egos of defenders of the “old way”. I assume they’re grownups who can take a few lumps, “suck it in” and defend their point of view. I’m often wrong about this and I tend to get people upset at me.  Too bad, I guess.

Looking back, I’m struck by the fact that I’m not often proven to be on the wrong side of the big issues. I have a lot of confidence in my judgment (tempered by skepticism directed inward). This often comes across as “arrogance”. I have often observed that competent professionals of every stripe are accused of arrogance. If you try to convince a doctor that your knee hurts every full moon, his reaction will probably seem arrogant. If you try to convince the stewardess that the aircraft is lost, you’ll get the same impression. 

I’m a master un-learner. What I know I have learned by deconstructing what I “knew” before. I have a first-class bullshit detector and I wield it with confidence and precision. To many people, that comes across as arrogance. People who know me best will tell you that the best defence is to keep the conversation light. Make a joke or two. Things go best if you pretend this isn't a serious discussion.