Monday, 20 December 2010

Why porn is a good thing

If you dont want to read about porn then dont read about porn. If you do, I have some thoughts. I want to explain why I watch and read porn, why I like porn, why I think it's a good thing, not just because it gives people physical pleasure, but as an art form. Why I think a lot of critiques of porn that go under the name of feminism are mad. Why I think attempts to restrict porn are doomed to failure, fundamentally dangerous and not a good way to address the many dangers of immoral forms of sex. And finally how all of this fits into the reality of immoral forms of sexual act. If you dont want to know, dont read, thankyou.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Fisking Bob Ainsworth et al.

Fun BBC article.

"An ex-minister who had responsibility for drugs policy has called for all drugs to be legally available.

Bob Ainsworth, a Home Office minister under Tony Blair, said successive governments' approaches had failed, leaving criminal gangs in control."

Ex-minister joins what everyone has been saying for decades. Well done though. Nice to see being a minister and having a good idea aren't totally incompatible.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Ayes 323, Noes 302

Ok. First thing I'm going to say in big friendly letters:


Second thing I'm going to say is there are number of things that should be done, that could be done and that shouldn't be done. Please be careful about which is which.

Ok, so here's why the vote isn't as bad as you think, shouldn't put you off going wherever the hell you want, why the police are dicks and how I would have voted if I were an MP.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Open Primaries

Open primaries are a really great idea. The problem with party politics is that most people end up voting for the semi-conscious hulk of flesh wearing the right coloured rosette rather than an actual competent human being. The idea of an open primary is to have an election within the party so that the electorate can choose the best candidate for the party.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Tuition Fees.

Ok, fair warning: I have no big or clever ideas here, I'm just annoyed and need to try and work out what I think, as such this will be a kind of stream of consciousness thing. Dont read looking for any great insight, you wont find it.

Note after having written this: this is not me on form, ignore if you're not really desperate to read every word that falls off my keyboard.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


As you make have read the met has, in its infinite wisdom, decided that censoring the web is somehow possible or desirable. To clarify then:

Dear all representatives of all governments anywhere ever,

Leave me alone. You cant censor me, that's designed to be impossible.

Yours, the internet

Sunday, 14 November 2010

A letter to my MP

Dear [Name of MP redacted]

I write both as your constituent and as a regular user of social media. I am deeply worried by the recent ruling in the case of Paul Chambers. He is a twitter user who sent a tweet saying: "Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!" (For a very good background see

The judgement of the Crown Court on the 11th was that this tweet was "menacing in its content and obviously so" and that he should be fined several thousand pounds.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


I've been getting very annoyed recently. (Shocker). About prisoners voting specifically. Or rather, not about that, I've not been annoyed at all by that, I've been annoyed by the way it's been discussed in public. And I'd like to explain now why everyone other than me is crazy and irrational.

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Ok, some more politics. It's been a while, I apologise but you know, work and stuff.

There will be a referendum on the 5th of May 2011(baring any last minuite changes). The question as currently in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010-11 is:

At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

Saturday, 23 October 2010

A blog post from 2020

You may note the date of this blog post is in the future. I've done this because I want to talk about a universe that is different from this one in some respect but with the impression that, for all I know, this universe could become that one. My point is that I believe the universe I am about to present to be a consistent one, one which is not logically contradictory. This universe I dont think will come about, but if it did, I hope this is how I would react.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

It gets better

People hate people. People love people. The happiness in the world is made by the balance of one over the other. Recently there has been a lot of hate directed at a small group of people. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids are bullied and hated and despised in schools and workplaces and law courts and armies and shops and offices and parks all over the world. This is always terrible, sometimes disastrously so.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Science funding

The UK is having a severe series of cuts. 25% will be cut over the next five years, ie 6% per year across all government departments except the NHS. I'm not going to comment on the economic wisdom of this because I dont know and I dont think most economists do either. However, given that fact we must decide how to lobby our government. So for the month leading up to the spending review (October 20th) lobbyists from everyone with a stake in government will come to plead thier own particular band of exceptionalism. The resounding message from across the land will be "there should be cuts, just not this ... or that ... or that ... and while you're at it can I have some more?"

Wednesday, 22 September 2010


... I'm honestly not sure if I should write this. Firstly because it's very far from the normal fare of this blog. Secondly because it's not a subject I have even average knowledge of. And thirdly because angsty-white-teen-blogs-about-love is the single least interesting thing on the internet. But non the less:

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Philosophy - states and power

I've given a definition of should, now a definition is all well and good, but if it doesn't fit some useful purpose then there's no point having it. So I'm going to test this idea with a few questions, first, the most important and grandest of questions, the nature, extent and existence of the state. If you dont like my answer to these questions then there are 3 possible responses, you must disagree with my facts by showing that a belief I have about the world is false, you must disagree with my analysis by saying that I draw unfair conclusions or you can say that good reasoning lead to a bad result, in which case you must reject my definition of should. So then, the issue:

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Science and art

I've always been astonished by artists, not by their ability to create, that is very great, but not astonishing. What I find amazing is that a group of people with such amazing empathy and understanding of their fellow humans, indeed, a group of people who pride themselves on it, can so fail to understand how the other half live.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Morality part 2

Ok, after delaying for far too long I feel I need to respond to these questions with something more substantial than a comment, so here we go.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Religion on twitter

The surprising thing about religion on twitter is just how unsurprising it is. If we take this very unscientific poll we see a lot of things we might expect. Firstly the raw data, all religions.

There are very few chunks that are very large, religious monopolies dont exist on the plural internet. The largest single one is atheist, unsurprising given that twitter is dominated by wealthy Europeans and Americans, and that the internet in general is great at getting atheists to gang up and crash polls of this kind. Another thing to notice is how far from negligible the small religions are, pagans account for whole 3%, wiccans another 2%. The raw data gives you an idea of how important this effect is, even the smallest group represented: Confucianists have 26 votes to their name.

So the raw data give us, dont ignore the little guys, there are atheists on the internet.

If we categorise religions however, we get another couple of ideas, again, not very suprising. The largest group is the broadly non-religious including agnostics, followed by the Christians, then the other Abrahamic religions, (note that this is 12% Islam and 2% Judaism), then the others, still an impressive 14%.

What can we work out from this? That the representation of Islam is a lot lower than you would expect from world totals, likewise the other major world religions besides Christianity. This is at least partially explained by this poll being run in English, ask the same question in Arabic or Hindi and I'll bet you'd get a different result. The rest might be explained by the penetration of the internet in various countries and social groups. Obviously there are far fewer Buddhists and Confucians than worldwide figures would make you expect because of the Chinese internet, likewise African folk religions.

One thing that might be interesting to note is how massively over-represented is the category "Other Christian". Roughly speaking the other categories are in the right proportions to eachother, but other is at least an order of magnitude too large. Is this tendency for people of all branches of Christianity to call themselves Christian even to put themselves into an "other" category something that is well known and studied? I can understand this result happening if there was a label "Christian", but the assumption of the poll is that you should select a denomination so people are actively rejecting such labels.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Labour Leadership

Hello, time for some more ill-advised party political stuff.

So it turns out that after Brown resigned they had to pick a new person to be in charge of the moaners, sorry, Her Majesty's Official Opposition. Now the most obvious and best person to do this would be the current temporary leader Harriet Harman, she's got several features that make her easily the only sensible candidate. A) I've heard of her, B) She's damned good at PMQs, which is basically the entire job of being leader of the opposition, C) ... well basically that's it. But that's all she needs.

Unfortunately, real world politics is never as simple as that, and she has ruled herself out, which is a very sensible move on her part. This way she gets to lock herself into the position of deputy leader forever and have a shot at a lot more power over a lot longer period than she would if she ran for leader and won, and a hell of a lot more than if she failed.

So that being done I guess we'll have to go with one of the people who has run, these are, in the order that I remembered their existence:

  • David Miliband, who is apparently just Tony Blair again. Which is great if electoral success, a lot of power, disastrous decisions, being hated by everyone and getting millions selling really bad books and giving bad speeches is your thing.
  • Ed Miliband, brother of Tony Blair. Apparently he's interesting because he thinks that socialism is more important than being electable.
  • Diane Abbot, a black woman. Used to sit next to that ugly chap on This Week.
  • Ed Balls, he's called Balls, he looks like a headtecher, but not a very successful one. I think he thinks that the teachers are planning to gang up on him at break.
  • Some guy from the north.
What's shocking about this leadership contest is just how avoidable it has been. I consider myself reasonably well informed about politics, but I know almost nothing, I know there's been a background of things happening and speeches made, but hand on heart I cannot name one notable event out of this entire contest. Not one moment where someone said something stupid, racist, insensitive, angry, impassioned, not one drunken punch-up after a hustings. I know that lots of things have been said and if I'd only go and find out what they were I'd know more, but that's not the point, this is politics, it's not about me finding out what you stand for, you have to tell me. you have to make it exciting. I'm not supporting the politics of spectacle, but would one of you please do something that will cause just one little trending topic on twitter.

There are a few complexities in working out who will win, because they somehow weigh votes of the MPs, the members of the Labour Party and the members of the various trades union (yes, trades union, that's apparently the way you say it if you're pointing attention to how much more grammar than any normal person you know) against each other. That and each of the 3 electorates gets to vote by AV. But, so far the impression I get is that David M. will win the first preference contest, but that he runs the serious risk of loosing if the second preferences are skewed in favour of Ed M.

I'm not a labour party supporter, nor do I think that electing any particular leader would be so massively better than any other either for Labour or for the country that I think it's worth my while campaigning. However, I am quietly pleased by the potential for Ed M. to win.

Firstly having an alleged socialist who isn't obviously an idiot in charge of a serious political party would be a nice change, there's not nearly enough choice in our politics at the moment, and a bit of distance between the parties cant hurt. Secondly I am told by a reliable source that Ed is regarded as a geek, this is excellent, there need to be far more geeks in positions of power, for far too long power has lain in he hands of the popular people of this world, and the time for a geek uprising to claim our rightful place back is long overdue. Third, and a little bit naughtily, if Ed gets in based on second preferences that would make the AV referendum a lot more interesting.

At the moment the Labour party has for reasons apparently best known to itself chosen to largely ally with the Tories against AV. Now I for one think this is a miscalculation and best and seriously misguided at best. AV alleges to be about political reform, and until recently a lot of the Labour party seemed to think so too. Now you can argue about the specifics of AV vs AV+ vs PR and the constituency reforms and the coalition and everything else, but seriously, Labour, here's a hint, you're supposed to be reforming, progressive, as a general rule if you're fighting against a reform and with the Tories then you need to seriously ask yourself what the hell you are doing.

However, if the leader of the Labour party were to be elected by AV, and specifically by AV, against the first preferences of his party, that would make strong arguments from the Labour party as an organisation a lot harder. Which at the very least goes a way towards balancing the party firepower. Which is a lot more interesting at the very least, even if it doesn't bring about some kind of miraculous world where the parties cancel out so the winner is chosen by the arguments rather than pure politics.

Friday, 3 September 2010

God and Stephen Hawking

It's not often that a story excites twitter so much it stays trending for more than a few hours. But the last 2 days solid "Stephen Hawking" has been stubbornly keeping to the top 5 or so terms used. I'd like to try and explain why and why he's right. Before I start though I'd like to add the disclaimer that everyone should use before discussing this: Stephen Hawking, comma, who is a fuck of a lot smarter than I am, comma, says:

God is not necessary to explain the universe.

Cue shocked noises ... or not. This is hardly news of course, "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là"1 has been the maxim of a large number of (but very very far from all) scientists in the fully modern sense of the word. The difference is that Hawking has claimed this is the result of a genuine scientific result. I'd like to try and explain this result and what it means.

General relativity and energy

I'm not going to get too into the maths here, but in qualitative terms: We know from Einstein that gravity bends space. So a large object like the sun bends space into itself. thanks wikipedia This curvature has energy associated with it. Think of it like an elastic sheet, if you put something big on it it will bend, and this stores up energy. The important thing about gravity is that the energy you get is negative. Meaning that to get things beyond the pull of gravity you need to put energy in to get things very far away. So gravity can give us negative terms to cancel things out.

The big question is what this energy cancels out. Importantly we want to know if the total energy of the universe is positive, negative, or zero. Now there are a few factors to balance here. Firstly the energy in all the matter, that is the stuff, this has energy by E=mc2, to this you have to add dark matter and various other strange things. Secondly the energy associated with the universe expanding, we know that because of the big bang the universe is getting bigger, this moves objects apart, and so they gain gravitational potential energy. The last thing to work out is the total energy from all the small local bends, the curvature around all the stars and planets.

Luckily it turns out there's quite a simple way to add all this up. If the universe has positive or negative energy in total it will bend not just on the small scale but overall. If you walk around a hilly area you see lots of hills and valleys, but if you zoom out by going up in a helicopter you can see that overall there's no big change in the heights, there are never valleys somewhere that are higher than the hills somwhere else. But if you zoom out further, in a high plane or into space you can see that the whole earth is curved. It's bent right round on itself like a ball. This overall curvature is the big question. Because if there is an imbalance here then the whole universe will curve away like this. Only a universe where the negative gravitational energy exactly cancels with the positive energy from the matter is exactly flat, go as far as you like and things stay at the same level.

Now what Hawking has said, and he is right in this. Is that from what we can see with our telescopes, the universe looks really really flat. As far as we can tell it looks *exactly* flat.

A flat universe from nothing

This really matters for philosophers. Because there are big problems to be answered for any other kind of universe. We know that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but you can turn matter into energy, and vice versa, this is Einstein's E-mc2. This happens over and over again in high energy labs and in cosmic rays in space. Einstein says that if you have energy you can turn in into a much smaller amount of matter, and back again. So if you want to make a universe and fill it with stuff, you need a lot of energy to make it all. Now if this energy was more than gravity could make for you, then there's a big problem. Where did all this energy come from? We would need some kind of source of energy outside of the universe to make it. If the other way round there is too much energy from gravity and not enough stuff, then we have to ask where did all the energy go? Why has energy leaked out of the universe?

A flat universe is different. In a flat universe all the energy you need to make stuff is there because of gravity, nothing is created or destroyed. There is no violation of energy conservation. It is perfectly consistent with all known physics to say that the universe just make itself, from nothing.

nilio ex nilio

There is a high minded principle that a certain kind of philosopher loves very much. Nothing can come from nothing, things cannot be made from a vacuum. Such is the love of this idea that people say it in latin to make it sound like ancient wisdom. However, as with a lot of grand philosophical ideas, it's utter bullshit.

Stuff comes from nothing all the time. It's happening right now in every cubic millimetre of space in the entire universe. All over the universe right now and at all times particles are created and destroyed faster than you can imagine. This rush of particles and anti-particles popping into and out of existence is allowed and even demanded by physics. Particles come into existence in pairs that "cancel out" so that no energy is required to do this, so this means there's no violation of energy conservation and this happens so quickly and the particles so quickly pop back out of existence that the universe largely doesn't notice. This has been observed time and time again in laboratories and in cosmic rays from deep space. It's a fact, and you just have to deal with it no matter how much this ruins your grand philosophical notions.

So what Stephen Hawking has said is that there's nothing at all we know that stops the universe from just making itself from nothing. In fact, it's more or less demanded by the laws of physics as we understand it. So, he goes on. We do not need to suggest a creator, there is no requirement that gods be invoked to create everything, it was going to do it anyway.

Religion and physics

This is of course very very far from a proof that any gods do or do not exist. You cannot disprove gods using science, or at least, certain types of gods. Different gods are supposed to act in different ways, broadly we can think of a deistic type god, one which stays totally outside of the universe beyond creating it and makes no difference at all to the way things would be in the physical world if she wasn't there. You can say nothing at all about this type of god inside physics. However, there are other kinds of gods that do things, for instance perform miracles, create the world in seven days, heal people etc etc that can be tested. These gods are all (to the best of my knowledge) false, every rigorous test on a miracle that I know of has failed to show the predicted result. So many kinds of god can be disproved.

The question then is, has this result added any to the list of kinds of god that dont exist? Maybe. It's certainly placed limits on how gods could have made the universe, they cant have used any excess energy to do it, and they cant have done it in order to pump energy somewhere else. But really the significance of this is much like Darwin and evolution, it does not kill gods, it kills the necessity.

Before Darwin the watchmaker argument was really very strong. Atheists at this time really had to grit their teeth and say, "yeh, I know eyes look like cameras and people make cameras, but I'm sure there's some other explanation than gods". But after Darwin, this was no longer a matter of hope or faith, the mechanism was known, we didn't require as an explanation of the physical world to suppose any gods. If we didn't know this result Hawking is talking about, then would be a real question about how the energy got here or left, there's no known way for that non-zero total to have come about. Maybe gods would actually be a good explanation for such a universe. I dont think so, but that's largely a question of faith, not of science.

So ultimately I dont know if there is anything here for a religious person to be worried about. If it's an article of your faith that a god made the universe in order to pump excess energy into his home lighting grid then you may have to re-think that belief. But if not, if your idea of god or gods is consistent with a universe made from nothing then Hawking has said nothing that should worry you. Many people have an idea of a god or gods far beyond the reach of science, and such people shouldn't worry no matter how shouty the scientists get.

final thought

I was struck while thinking about this by just how consistent this is with some schools of Christian theology. A lot of people have argued that this result is impossible, you cannot have an uncaused cause, you cannot have something from nothing, life from non-life etc etc. But isn't that exactly what has been claimed by many thologians? The sentence "the universe simply is, it has no cause and needed nothing to make it exist, it made itself" may sound repellent, but replace "the universe" with "God" and you get good orthodox theology. God is the uncaused cause. Just call the universe God, and Hawking has just proved your religion.


1) "I had no need of that hypothesis." Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827) once gave a book on physics to the very well read Napoleon. Napoleon is alleged to have asked why he had not mentioned God as the creator, Laplace gave this as response.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Philosophy - Morality

And now finally, the point. The entire purpose of philosophy, of thought in general, is to determine what we should do. The key problem is the famous is-ought gap. Thus far I have talked about what is, firstly my perceptions, then theories about them. And then the world reviled by these theories. So now we have to find a way to talk about “ought”. No amount of statements about what is can tell us what we should do. This is because the word “should” is not yet defined. So we need some way to jump the is-ought gap. I'm going to try this by defining the word “should”. This is a definition so cannot be wrong in a logical sense. The only question is if other people agree with me. Other people choose different definitions for should, others will choose to define ought statements in other ways. Many choose not to define ought statements at all, saying the is-ought gap exists so we cannot jump it at all and must live in a haze of intuitive notions when talking about moral ideas.

So far I have talked about the world in almost exclusively physical terms. I've talked about humans and people in terms of objects. But it's important to recognise an aspect of my perceptions. Happiness. For me perceiving the taste of a ham sandwich is fundamentally different from the taste of porridge, far more different than the foods themselves. I enjoy ham sandwiches far more than porridge, this is a definite observed perception, it's not something I'm just saying to myself. How do I know it's not just a thought with no real significance? My actions. 6

I have never actively sought out porridge. I dont put effort into going to find it, I do however put effort into making a nice ham sandwich. We act to achieve those perceptions that bring us most happiness, this is the definition of happiness. Endless tomes can and have been written on happiness so I'll just point out a few obvious features.

  • More than one kind of happiness exists. Different things make us happy at one and the same time. So being happy that I am at a fine university doesn't stop me being happy that I am eating a cheese sandwich.
  • Happiness is not the same as physical pleasure. It is said that rats can be wired to electrodes that stimulate the orgasm section of the brain, it is also said that if given a button to activate this they will stave themselves to death pushing it. If this is true human happiness and rat happiness is different. There are many examples of so-called sex addicted people, but I have yet to encounter a story of people starving themselves to death from sex-induced neglect. So people at some point stop having sex (or masturbating), the do this to gain some other kind of happiness. This cannot be physical pleasure, no higher or stronger form of physical pleasure exists than orgasm. So we can conclude that non-pleasure forms of happiness, (self preservation, loyalty, friendship, knowledge, art, appreciation, the happiness of others, accomplishment etc etc etc) can overpower physical pleasure, so happiness and pleasure are not the same.
  • We benefit others and this makes us happy. I dont give money to Africa to help them. Well, I do, but if I'm a little more honest with myself, the reason that I do this is that I like to think of myself as a charitable person, and donating whatever nominal sum I give will have a much greater effect on boosting my own self image (or my image in the eyes of others) than it will actually helping people. This is not to say that donating money to Africa is bad or that we should stop doing it, or that we should change ourselves so we dont act on these selfish motives. I simply note that the concept of acting on our desires only is not always the same as the idea of selfishness as normally understood.
  • We often do things that make us unhappy in the short term but happy in the long term, or vice versa. We balance the strength of our desires to conclude which of the two happinesses is more important to us.
  • You can be happy in awful situations, the history of martyrs tells of countless people who have voluntarily withstood unimaginable physical and emotional suffering. People exist who have actively chosen torture. These people choose their principle or friends or religion or whatever else over relief from pain. The principles that drive them obviously make them more happy than would freedom from pain.
  • We can, with a lot of effort, change what makes us happy. Ask any ex-addict, the drug used to make them happy, no longer. It's a hard process but it can be done. Of course there are a number of short cuts, sudden road-to-demascus type conversion from one thing making you happy to a fundamentally different form of happiness exists, often it's religious in nature, but similar things can happen in the context of animal welfare or their world aid say.

There is one big observation though. Theory of mind, I said above, is a scientific theory that suggests that others have a mind (ie all those perceptions that aren't sense data, thinking, feeling etc), and this includes desire. So we conclude others have desires, the question is what are they? This we have to work out by a slightly more complex route than simply asking them. I say this because people have an astonishingly strong tendency to deceive themselves and others. But it can be done.

We can notice a number of things in common with people's desires. Almost all people have basic desires, the act to preserve their own life, their family, they desire sex, a fulfilled life, the praise of their peers, full Maslow's hierarchy of needs stuff. We can then have a fairly good guess at what a random stranger would be like. For instance, they would be happy if you complimented their dress, unhappy if you stabbed them, happy if you gave them money, unhappy if you suggested their momma was so fat that something improbable resulted.

Of course, there are going to be exceptions to this because what we are asking here is scientific in nature. The question is “what kinds of things will this organism seek to bring about using its knowledge of cause and effect?”. And please note I said organism, but that isn't the most general thing. Humans have desires clearly, they act in a purposeful way, but so do all animals, they act in a way that their knowledge of cause and effect leads them to suspect will make them happy. But plants also can be said to act in some very very limited sense, turning to face the sun, growing roots towards better soil etc. This idea of desire is so general we can talk of robots or computer programs having desires. The problem with these last two examples is that their determinism is far more clear to us, our best scientific theory of how animals act is not neurological, it's behavioural, we understand animals best as minds with bodies rather than just as bodies with brains. This is either fundamentally correct or will eventually be overturned by far better neurology. Either way the question is of our best theory.7

So I would like to suggest a definition of the word should. “An individual should perform an action to the extant that it fulfils all desires that exist”. Things to note are:

  • This is continuous. Should and should not are spectral, it's not the case that you can put things that should be done in one self contained set.
  • This is consequentialist, virtue, duty, commands, intents etc matter in this theory, but only as tools. You should (as I have defined it) desire the happiness of others, but this is only a tool to making them happy, simply desiring it is not enough. Likewise rules can be (and will be) proposed that aim to make people do what they should, and these should be obeyed if and only if they achieve that. Just laws should be obeyed because they are just, not because they are laws.
  • I've not said how we compare desires. This is something (like the problem of time) that is key to my philosophy that needs vastly more care and good thinking than I have the ability to give it. For now as a patch to allow this to continue I will use the idea of the veil of ignorance. In this theory an action that prevents one desire while allowing another should be done to the extent that one would prefer one desire over another if one didn't know which of the effected people one was going to be. I'm not convinced this is satisfactory, if anyone has suggestions please offer them.


6)My body acts, for the sake of not having to do linguistic acrobatics I'm going to say it's because I choose to do something using free will, but this is a metaphysical idea nothing more.

7)See my point about speaking in terms of free will? You can say all that in deterministic terms, but it's clumsy and unclear.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Philosophy - philosophy of science


Science works by testing theories. But I (and philosophy of science as written by scientists generally) have been tight lipped on the subject of where these theories come from. Some say that theories are essentially random, some that they are artistic and require genius to understand. All say that it doesn't matter where they come from. The problem with this kind of philosophy of science is that it's totally false. Scientific theories are not random, they dont require genius, and it does matter where they come from. For easy example I'll take Newtonian gravity.

The distinction between scientific theories and metaphysics is important here. If you generated theories at random (whatever that would mean) you would almost defiantly never generate even a simple understanding of the world. Perceptions are just too complex, you cant hope to get a good approximation of them randomly, there's just too much going on. So we need a way of testing theories that are likely to work better than by chance. The way you do this is to imagine an “ultimate reality”, some version of the world that is metaphysical, but tied to perceptions.

So, Newton is sat at his desk working out the force of attraction between two point masses. He is now 90% of the way to solving the problem. Because asking that question needs a conceptual framework, you need to imagine that there are such things as point masses, you need to imagine that these accelerate due to force, you need to imagine that forces can happen in the gaps between them. This framework cannot be directly tested, because there's nothing in it that makes predictions. You cannot deduce from this how large objects act, what the relationship between acceleration and force is, and what forces act in the gap. But just because it cannot be tested itself doesn't mean it's as good as any other metaphysic.

Because the possible answers to these questions are quantitatively very few, and are suggested by the metaphysic. Once you have this conceptual framework to act as a heuristic the answers (like a point mass at their centre of mass, Newton's Second, and Newtonian Gravity respectively) are reasonably obvious, (that is, if you're the greatest mind to have existed). Without this kind of a framework minds as as good as Newton in the Classical age would never have thought of Newtonian gravity, because guessing it randomly is next to impossible.

Comparing models

So, given that it is possible for a heuristic to exist that will give you very good theories far better than chance. (Why this is so is a metaphysical question, “because that's what the universe is really like” is one answer, “because such conceptions tap into a subconscious understanding of our perceptions we already have” is another). The question is which do we go for. Do we keep dogmatically with a static eternal idea of the universe and expand and refine Newtonian Mechanics. Or do we shift to a new paradigm, an Einsteinian paradigm. Now this is not a question of one theory verses another. You can formulate General Relativity in Newtonian terms, (you just say that point forces exert a force on each other given by a hideous formula that looks very similar to one you use for dealing with curved space). The reason nobody does this is that it makes no sense. The theory does not follow from the paradigm.

The real question is not which theory is right, the question is which paradigm generates it. Newton's Law follows from his paradigm just as obviously (if you're a genius) as Einstein's does from his. The way you test what paradigm you use is to see which generates the best theories. We can even refine this idea. Sometimes theories are very general and take a lot of work to particularise. Consider the moon landings. At the time computing power was a scarce resource. So when the question arose, do we calculate using Newton or Einstein Newton won. Now General Relativity is the better theory, is makes predictions that are closer to reality. The problem is that these predictions are hard to compute, Newton is easy to compute with and well understood. Because of resources Newton's calculations could be done to far more decimal places, so whilst Einstein would have eventually beaten him, Newton won the race to the moon.

So I'd like to suggest that we think about predictions a different way. I'd like to suggest that it isn't the case that if one theory beats another it does so everywhere. If one theory makes one kind of prediction well (eg prediction the bending of light by gravity) that doesn't mean it will make another sort (eg low resolution predictions) just as well. So, we must always pick the right theory for the job, bearing in mind the situation. And we must always keep the right paradigm in mind, considering its results.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

A nice proper rant.

Thankyou Ann Widdecombe. I've not had chance for a proper rant recently, so your article was a great help.


Ok I wont.

Has anyone noticed that what the opponents of religion really want is that Christianity should be silent?

I would have thought opponents of religion would want far more than that, namely that all religions stop existing, not much point be an opponent of something if you're quite happy with it. But I'm sure you're going somewhere with this, carry on.

Last week it was reported that the British Humanist association has condemned an award given to Noah’s ark Zoo, a creationist centre near Bristol.

Quite accurate, I got a link to the article myself via their email newsletter.

The zoo has put on such an imaginative and educational display that the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom has issued it with a mark of recognition.

It is doubtless a fun place to go and one can learn a lot about modern animals, just as with any zoo. However:

Those who run the zoo have established workshops which cover the national science curriculum but do not include discussion of religion and do not promote the extreme creationist view that the world was created 6,000 years ago.

Here is a first problem. This is not an organisation which can be regarded as anything other than extreme. The clue is in the name. The Noah's Ark Zoo contends that Noah's Ark literally existed, all life is descended from a boat full of animals fully formed in their modern species. See several pages from their website. Admittedly they dont openly claim that the Earth is 6000 years old. An age for the earth is conspicuous by its absence. However their "sister website" does claim that the Cretaceous period lasted "around 4,000 years", this is like claiming the Empire state building is "around 2cm" tall, ok so you've not claimed the earth is 6000 years old, equivalent to it being half a millimetre tall, but it's still really very wrong.

In other words it is a moderate, education-focused organisation that challenges children’s minds and produces evidence from fossils.

Umm. No, not really. It's an organisation that promotes false science by pointing at misleading evidence including gaps in the fossil record that simply do not exist. Challenging children's mind on issues that are unclear or controversial is a great idea, it's important to make kids think about evolution in a critical way. But doing this with things that are simply empirically false is not critical thinking, it's just lies.

The British Humanist association says the award is inappropriate merely because the zoo concentrates on creation.

Yes. It's inappropriate for an award for education to be awarded to a religious organisation pushing a religious (and false) view of the world. Schools shouldn't go here anyway. If you want to go there yourself that's fine, if you want to take your kids that's fine, but you do not send school kids to a religious institution to be taught a false religious theory about the world using government money. That's not an extreme view, it's called church state separation and it's one of the most important ideas the enlightenment brought us.

In short the British Humanist association does not believe that children should be allowed even to discuss creation or to be exposed to any evidence that might support it.

Yeh. Creationism is a religion. It is not a fact. It is a purely empirical question and on a purely experimental observational basis it is false.

Also, academics carry out a study of the effects of prayer on the blind and deaf and finds evidence people’s sight and hearing have improved as a result of faith healing. Immediately the National secular society brands the findings “religious propaganda”.

Yeh, because if you're thinking of the study I am it's a load of crap. It's been Phyrangualted pretty well, but in short, the study shows that a small group of people who believed in the power of prayer and wanted to prove as much to others said that they felt better after being prayed for in a very dramatic and obvious way. In short this study proves only the stupidity of the people who designed it.

Its president Terry sanderson says faith healing groups “exploit the desperation of people living in extreme poverty who are unable to access proper medical care”.

For example those selling magic medicine to cure AIDs in sub-Saharan Africa.

Really, Mr sanderson? My mother lived comfortably and had available to her all the medical care the NHs could provide and her private insurance could buy and she still experienced miraculous healing.

Non sequitur. There is no contradiction between faith healing groups exploiting poor people and your rich mother experiencing a miracle. (One could argue there is a contradiction between receiving "all the medical care the NHs could provide and her private insurance could buy" and still calling the healing she got miraculous, but I digress).

Forbidding children to examine both sides of an argument is to substitute propaganda for education and dismissing as propaganda properly conducted surveys is a mark of intolerance.

I totally agree. So when there is a situation with two sides and valid arguments on both then children should be shown both sides. But that's not the case with evolution is it? It's not intolerant to say that when every sane intelligent person who examines something (including the majority of religious people in this country) concludes one thing, and people with an anti-scientific world view who deliberately falsify evidence and peddle lies to kids conclude another, that maybe there's no controversy. Teach the controversy, but not if it doesn't exist.

We can expect the British Humanists and the National secular association to be pretty vocal during the Papal visit.

Damn right people are going to be vocal when the head of an anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-medicine, anti-choice, anti-freedom, anti-everything-that's-bright-and-happy-in-the-world organisation comes to the UK at taxpayer's expense. Damn right there's going to be protests against the head of an organisation that has covered up rape on an industrial scale. Damn right there's going to be protests against a bigot who speaks against the equalities bill not, as many (myself included) did, because its approach was heavy handed and unworkable, but because he is genuinely opposed to equality. Damn right we're going to protest, the man is a bigot.

It is as well therefore to understand their bigoted approach from the outset.

Umm, no. Intolerance and bigotry means an irrational rejection of an idea and a demand that it shut up. Seeing that demonstrably evil groups (the Catholic Church) are attempting to spend taxpayers money and campaigning against that is not bigotry. Seeing that organisations that wish to lie to children about empirical facts (Noah's Ark Zoo) are recommended as a place for school trips and campaigning against that isn't bigotry. Seeing that academics wish to present the kind of stuff that would be thrown out of a year 9 science fair as novel research and telling them they need to seriously consider a new career isn't bigotry. And writing this article for the Daily Express isn't bigotry either, it's just stupidity.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Philosophy - Science part 2


This seems a natural point to consider a few odd topic together. Firstly, equivalent theories. Consider the two theories “in front of me is a laptop made of plastic made of atoms” and “in front of me is an infinite number of infinitely small holographic projectors that act like a laptop no matter what I do to them or how I change them”. These make exactly the same predictions. I have no way of determining then which theory I should accept. I dont believe this to be a problem, I think that I'm not here talking about two theories. To my mind this is one theory expressed in two sets of words. We could just as easily say “en face de moi est un ordinateur portable”.

To a natural interpretation this is quite strange. Surely it makes all the difference in the world if the laptop is real or an illusion, but I would ask, what difference. Science tells us about perceptions, if there is a “way things really are” and it is not a perception, we can never know about it. Not in the sense that it's a hard problem or that we'll never be 100% sure. I mean we have exactly no clue, we cant even have an informed guess, because we have no information to base any ideas on.

We can know nothing that is beyond our sense data (I'll get onto metal constructions like logic later). It might be helpful to point out that my idea of what is metaphysical is a lot wider than normal. Normally it is said that the existence of gods is metaphysical, but that of chairs is not. I dont accept that we can have knowledge of chairs. Take my laptop, I can see patches of white and black that are explained almost perfectly by the scientific theory “in front of me is my laptop”, but also by the theory “I am a brain in a vat being fed sense data identical to those I would experience according to the laptop theory.” I dont claim that I can prove, or indeed that I have even the ability to think it probable, that my laptop is real.

We all have metaphysical beliefs. For instance, I believe my laptop exists. This is not true, nor is it false. It is better thought of as a statement about my emotions than about things in a “world out there”. If someone says that my laptop does not exists I dont think we really have any means of arguing about the fact, because there is no question of being right or wrong in the matter.4


Gods are tricky ideas. Many gods are purely metaphysical ideas with no scientific component at all. A god who starts the universe or who sits outside of it to judge or just to observe is totally metaphysical, a universe with him would look exactly the same as one without him. So we must be agnostic about such gods, we cannot have proof of them, but far more than that, we cannot even have an educated guess, there are no arguments for or against. So when I say “I dont believe in such a god” I am not right or wrong any more than I would be if I said “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. There is no right and wrong because there is no truth in the matter.

Some gods however stray beyond this. A god that acts in the world is, by that fact, a part of the world. So we can distinguish a god that creates the world but has no more influence on it from a god who creates the world and then sets about populating it over a period of 6 days. This kind of intervening god is far more simple from a philosophical perspective. We can simply get a scientist to do an experiment and tell us with high levels of certainty if such gods exist. And, to my knowledge, none of them do, all stories of interventions by gods have been shown to be without evidence. The important problem for philosophy is how to combine rejection of aspects of supposed divine action which are false from ones which are metaphysical. Almost all religions combine both aspects.

The internal world

When I defined science I said we make theories about perceptions. Thoughts and emotions are perceptions. So in this sense we can expand the domain of science to include “subjective” ideas. The key idea is theory of mind. Normally the term theory of mind is used in the context of autistic people or children and used to discuss the idea that they cannot understand the behaviour of others. But I think we can interpret it far more literally.

Considering the object near our centre of perception (I.e. ourself), we consider as a scientific theory the idea that we can control our actions. The first theory is that motions of our bodies are exactly the things we think of doing. Then we observe ourselves breathing or our heart beating or some other automatic action. We also observe an imagined action that feels much like our feeling before acting which doesn't actually result in anything. So we have to slightly elaborate our theory, and this elaboration is going on right now in every neuroscience department and I'm not going to try and pre-empt this.

Looking at other people we see they act in similar ways to us. We observe that there are perceptions that look like . We also observe that these objects do things that are similar to how we act in a similar situation. Then we can propose that they, like us, have minds, memories etc which can be predicted based on their past. This theory works quite well and is the basis of almost all our knowledge of others. We simply ask “if I were standing where they are, and knew what they knew, and had their history and characteristics what would I do?”, this is normally a good prediction.

Other people and science

One problem that a lot of people have with a sceptical5 approach to the world is that we cannot possibly examine everything in the world. So suppose I am deciding if I should accept Newton's law of Gravity or General Relativity it's just not reasonable to expect me to wait for a solar eclipse, probably travel thousands of miles, and do the experiment myself. So we must postulate the theory of the reliable scientist. This states that we can, under some situations, expect that others are telling the truth about their own experiences, and that we can deduce from this things about our own perceptions. We can test this theory and compare it to the opposing theory that we should ignore other people in discussing scientific theories by doing experiments and comparing our results with those of others. This gives us a list of people who can, in general, be relied upon. We can go further, it is perfectly scientific to believe someone we know nothing about if they are recommended as reliable by someone whose past recommendations have been reliable. In this we we can build up and produce such concepts as peer review and repeated reproducible experiments.

Free will

The question of the existence of free will is an ancient one. And one that I believe will never be resolved. The question is, given how the universe is now and everything that has happened in the past. Is it possible that some of our actions are freely determined so that we could in theory do more than one different thing? Or are future events totally pre-determined? This I believe is metaphysical. Because there is only one direction of time, we only experience one version of events. If events are pre-determined then we experience just this one set of events, if other things could in theory have happened then there is some means by which exactly one outcome is selected and that happens. Either way our perceptions are exactly the same. There is literally no difference between a deterministic universe and a universe in which free will exists but which just happens to do the same thing.


4) I'm going to end up being loose with language. I'll probably say something stupid like “my laptop exists” is true when I mean to say that it is an accurate theory. You'll have to forgive me, and agree in advance to interpret that kind of thing in the context of the entire theory.

5) I mean philosophical scepticism. One of the most uninteresting and damaging things a first year philosophy student can be taught. There are different realms of epistemology and if you dont respect this you're just going to end up standing around like a nutter not knowing anything. "I know that I know nothing" is not indicative of wisdom, it means that your concept of knowledge is useless.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Constitutional Reform

Britain does not have a constitution, whatever you may want to say about our "constitutional arrangements" or the "constitutional duties" of the Queen we do not have a set of binding laws to control our political institutions, Britain has habits. The whole of British history, every Act of parliament, ever decision be it legal or political is a precedent. Discussing this fact is a whole different blog post, but when discussing constitutional reform we have to keep this fact in mind. So with this in mind, here are the more obvious problems with the long long overdue set of constitutional reforms started (but sadly neglected) by the Labour Government and hopefully to be continued by this Coalition.

The first stage was Lords reform. To have members of the legislature in place simply because of their father is unacceptable in a modern country. So the last government removed the right to pass peerages to your children and removed most of those who were there on that basis. However, the replacement system was hardly more democratic. New Lords are now mostly appointed by the Crown (as ever the word Crown here means in practice not Monarch but Prime Minister). This has a number of advantages, there are many in the House of Lords who are experts in their field, leading scientists, charity workers, ex-soldiers etc all of whom have expertise that would be valuable in creating laws. (There are Acts on the Statute Book so badly drafted that they have no legal effect at all, so clearly legal expertise cannot be assumed in the Commons).

Here the issue has largely rested, consultation after consultation and vote after vote has not substantially changed things. The next major step will be taken by the Coalition. They have so far proposed two serious sets of changes in detail, both for reforming the Commons. This takes the form of a bill to change how MPs are elected and a proposal for fixed term parliaments. The latter is rather more complex so I'll do that at the end. Then there are coalition agreement proposals for the lords, but nothing in detail.

The first proposal is for a referendum that would introduce the alternative vote or instant run-off method of voting. The commons is based on constituencies, there are many strong arguments for this, which cannot easily be countered. And because of this it does make sense to talk about electoral system in terms of an individual constituency. If I were to get a large group to select one thing I would use AV, this is the system that clearly selects someone with a wide base of support. So if we are selecting the single best representative of a constituency then AV should be our choice. However, there are limits to this thinking, there are political considerations, in a party system AV has known effects. It tends to increase landslides (which has almost zero effect, a landslide is a landslide), and decrease small majorities. Which may (it's hard to foresee) result in more hung parliaments. In short, if you're a Lib Dem then it's the thing to want. But I'm not, so is this good for other reasons? Yes, if you believe (as I do) in checks and balances, small majorities and hung parliaments can certainly push through a firm plan of action (see the coalition), but one which has wider support, a compromise, which is likely to be far less dangerous.

There's no serious change here, it's an important debate that would change the makeup of the Commons, but not by much. Importantly it would not bring in PR, to do that you have to get rid of constituencies which seems very hard to convince people of. People like their MP. Mine is Julian Hupert of Cambridge and I know if there's ever a problem then I would e very happy to go to him. Consider the Lords however, there are many wise and noble Lords, but none I would ever consider writing to, despite them having a right to vote on bills in just the same way. This is valuable, if it is as valuable as the benefits claimed for PR is another question.

The other change in the same Bill will alter the constituencies themselves. At present constituencies are decided by the independent Boundary Commission, they make their decision largely on historical precedent and local geography, but within conditions set down by endless acts of parliament and subject to change by the secretary of state. The proposal is to change the conditions to produce fewer seats (which is not really significant in terms of costs or democracy), which are more equal in size. This is an important but again not constitutionally very significant change. Ever since the days of rotten boroughs there have been irregularities in the sizes of constituencies, some amount due to accident, but largely due to the difficulties of making regularly sized constituencies out of irregularly sized wards made from irregularly sized villages towns and areas of cities. There have been countless steps to reverse these inconsistencies and this will not be the last such.

The next step will have to be the Lords, the two problems of the Lords and the Prime Minister are inter-related. If we are to accept that political members of the Lords are acceptable then it seems hard to suggest that Lords should be selected by the Prime Minister and not by the people. There is an argument for maintaining the excellent cross-benchers, "the great and the good" but if people like John Prescott are going to be members then at least that part needs to be elected. This is the key question of Lords reform. How much of the House should be experts appointed because they have the faintest idea what they're talking about, and how much should be party political, and how should they be elected.

One anomaly can and I think should be removed urgently. The Lords Spiritual are the top 26 bishops of the Church of England, that religion should have its own voice in lawmaking, and what's more only one flavour of religion, is anathema to a modern largely irreligious nation of Sunday-Christians (though increasingly not even that). To me it seems quite clear that the Lords Spiritual should have no automatic right to vote. If they contribute, the can become Lords Temporal, if not, then why would they be able to vote? There is a problem however. The bishops are there because they are appointed by the Crown in its capacity as head of the established Church. To take the Bishops out of the Lords would damage the influence that the Church has (of course the Church will always be a strong lobby, but the same is true of Mumsnet) I think it would be fair for the Church to ask what it gets out of being the established Church. There is a question of how nominal being established can become before it becomes pointless to continue the pretence. But for another time.

The current proposals are only in the very rough form of the Coalition Agreement, which require:
a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.
This leaves the possibility of leaving the cross-benchers behind, which would be quite a useful feature if the selection of such people could be de-politicised and all potential for corruption, jobs-for-the-boys, cash-for-peerages etc etc. This will take really careful drafting, but is certainly possible. As for the elected portion, this can be of a wide variety of forms, anything from STV to a closed national party list. Most likely a regional list system similar to that used in EU elections will be the compromise. Now if this is the case then there are serious questions as a result, about the prime minister, and about the commons.

Now it is possible, or rather probable, that at various times the Lords and Commons will have different makeups, with a majority party in one house not having even a plurality in the other. This leads us to a problem, the Prime Minister is that person who controls the confidence of the House of Commons, so if the Tories have a slight lead in the Commons and Labour an overwhelming majority in the Lords the PM will be a Tory, which doesn't seem to reflect the will of the people. Especially given the near-presidential power of the PM. If you've got control over prerogative power you need to be democratically accountable. Now it will be argued that the constituency link gives the Commons priority, and this may be satisfactory, however, there may come a point where this is no longer satisfactory, especially if the Lords becomes disruptive, there will be calls for a directly elected Prime Minister. And I dont see any good reason to oppose these calls. A cabinet selected by a directly elected individual would be a lot more accountable than one selected by whoever won in coalition negotiations as now.

Now a longer term consideration is the next round of electoral reform. If the AV referendum fails this may not be for decades but eventually there will be a challenge to the house of commons voting system. This is, I would like to disagree with most liberals here, something that should be resisted. We have a bicameral system, historically to reflect two separate interests, the interests of the commons and of the aristocracy. We no longer have a functional aristocracy, so we need a new reason to have the Lords. At the moment they are used as a convenient way to reward those who have been politically useful to those in power and as something for the tourists to look at (like Britain hasn't got enough of that). I suggest a new role is needed, maybe, if we retain the cross-benchers, they could be used to actually inject some knowledge and expertise into the legislative. However, either way we can ask the Lords to be a continuity chamber, blocking sudden or illiberal laws. And for that reason the Lords needs a different makeup to the commons. If you have two identical chambers there's twice the cost with none of the benefits, anything that goes through one will get through both, with different chambers it is at least reasonable to hope that a really bad law will pass one but not both. For this reason if there was in 2020 a referendum to change the Commons from AV/FPTP to the same form of PR as the Lords I would vote no. No matter the inherent virtues of PR a second chamber needs to be different. If PR was unavoidable I would argue that a different form of PR be used, or that the two houses have very different periods, say one election per 10 years for the Lords and one per 3 years for the Commons. However you do it you need two houses that do not simply mirror eachother.

The next is a proposal for fixed term parliaments. This is a lot more tricky. The current situation is that the Commons is elected, and following that the Prime Minister is decided by vote of confidence (or to be more accurate the government is). So the Prime Minister is not elected, and can only be removed by the Commons voting to say it has no confidence in the Government. If that happens then a strange period begins, the Government is obliged to resign, but before it does so the (now discredited) Prime Minister is given the decision as to what should happen next. The options are dissolving parliament (not, sadly, in acid) and calling a new election, or allowing the Leader of the Opposition to form a government. Under 2 party politics the first option was almost always the correct one, a vote of no confidence meant that a small majority had been reduced to nothing by rebellion or by-elections, it would be unusual for the opponents of a near majority to be able to command an actual majority so an election was really the only solution. However, in a hung parliament the situation is different, a loss of a vote of no confidence means that the governing coalition has fallen, but is is more than possible that some other coalition could be formed, especially very early on in the term. So here it does seem to make sense to re-negotiate rather than allow a discredited Prime Minister a second try at the election. This is for two reasons, one practical, the British people traditionally dont like being taken to the polls, especially on the hop as in 1974, the second political, a prime minister who has lost the confidence of the house is not in a position to try and bounce the electorate.

The proposal by this Coalition is that the power to call an election should be taken away from the government and given to a supermajority of the commons. This is a novelty in the British system, parliamentary sovereignty is interpreted to mean that 50%+1 of all MPs present is enough to pass any motion, and as the fox hunting ban proved the Lords is not necessary thanks to the Parliament Act. The proposal currently is that 2/3rd of the House would be required to call an early election. This is an utterly false idea and one that has no practical use. 50%+1 will still be enough to overturn this very act, and 50%+1 can pass a motion of no confidence, and then one in the leader of the opposition, and then one in whoever replaces him until the time limit to form a new government expires and an election is forced. The difference, and this is key, is time. As it is now a Prime Minister can go to the Palace at any time and there can be an election 17 working days later with no public involvement. The two procedures outlined above however take time, at least 14 days, and in this time political will can be mobilised against such a move. Under the proposed system any election held for partisan reasons can be opposed much more effectively.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Philosophy - Science.

Predicting future sense data

It seems that there is a past, present and future. Unlike the obvious irresistible truth of there being perceptions this sense is not sure. It is perfectly consistent to believe that there is only the present instant, that all perceptions of the past in the form of memories are simply perceptions without any past for them to reflect. I can find no argument quite strong enough to cover the purpose I'm about to put it to, this will need more thought.

We have the present, we can be certain of these perceptions, (they are all we can be certain of). We have the past, we have some memories of these (the memories are present perceptions so are certain, their relation if any to past perceptions is a question for science). There is also the future, and predicting that is the task of science.


Science is the only way to get beyond perceptions. This allows us to synthesize ideas, perceptions, memories etc and predict new things.

The scientific method is simple. First, generate several theories, a theory is a model or set of ideas that allow us to make as many future predictions as we like about perceptions of a particular kind. Then observe some perceptions. The theory with the predictions that best fit the perceptions is the best theory. This is the best approximation we have to the perceptions of the future. This does not give us knowledge in the sure and certain sense of the last post. We have to extend our epistemology (study or discussion of knowledge) and add a realm for scientific theories.

We can see clearly that this domain of scientific knowledge must be some kind of continuum. Predictions of future perceptions can be fulfilled more or less well, for example, if my best theory predicts the reading from some dial will be 1.5 and the true (observed) reading is 1.4 then my knowledge of the future movement of the dial is clearly good, but not nearly as good as it would be were my best theory to predict 1.37. Note also I've picked a numerical example for convenience, we might just as well predict seeing something blue or round. All that matters is that it should be possible to tell how well our prediction has come true. But we see that the notion of “correct” in science cannot be binary. If it were then we would consider the 1.5 theory to be just as wrong as the 1.37 theory, we cannot have improved theories, only the binary right and wrong.


The fact that this is a prediction and not a postdiction is important. We can gain nothing from knowing that a postdiction has come right. For instance, we can simply come up with the theory that all our prior observations will happen, with any prediction for the future, this will always be perfectly right. So, we require at least that the prediction not be influenced by the thing it is trying to predict.

Science as I have described it rests on the assumption that there is an arrow of time, I need a solution to this problem. I have not yet proved (at least, not to my satisfaction) that we are entitled to believe that there is a past and a future. There are two solutions to this.

Can I separate the idea of a prediction from the idea of time? In order to have science we must be able to test predictions, so we must have a notion of prediction, but can I rigorously construct an idea of predicting without having a safe idea of time? Or secondly: Can I defend the idea of time? I've no idea. If anyone can help me here please comment.

The past

It's not a big point, but a clarification. History is part of science, we can have predictions of the past as opposed to postdictions. A postdiction is a statement about past sense data, a statement about the past is a statement about future sense data that are best interpreted by talking about objects that existed in the past. For instance, I may put forward the theory that there was a Roman burial site in some location. This can make predictions, say that we could in future observe documents that refer to this site, or we could observe remains when digging there. Predictions are always about future sense data, but the best explanation for these may well be the past universe.

The world

Science gives us the world. All we can know for certain is our own perceptions, we need to construct the world “out there” based on this. The most fundamental kind of theory in science is the idea of an object. I see in front of me a black oblong shape with a large irregular patch of light in the middle. I construct the theory that this perception is caused by me seeing an object. In this case, my laptop. Please note, this is a theory, we can have sure and certain knowledge of no objects. (Brain in vat, illusion, hologram etc). But we can (and almost always do find) that this is the best explanation. The idea of an object is a theory as I described it above, because it makes predictions. For instance, an object continues to exist until something dramatic happens, and the perceptions I have “of” my laptop are reasonably constant. There is also the fact that objects continue to exist in much the same way if I move, so I predict that moving to the left will produce a different but related set of perceptions in a predictable way. And this works. The theory that objects exists is an extremely good one.

This gives an outline idea of what science gives us as good and accurate theories. I'll try and hash out in a bit more detail things like the limits of science, metaphysics, heuristics behind generating good scientific theories etc next time. But for now I'd like to suggest something that I'll try and develop later. The idea we have of science commonly is that it deals with objective things, where objective means what I identified before as perceptions of sense data or of the external world. I've deliberately defined this idea of science in a more general way, I have not mentioned other people or peer review, but I have included in "things we can have scientific theories about" such perceptions as our thoughts, imaginations, memories, emotions etc. I'm going to try and suggest later that the normal processes of science, peer review, arbitration by independent experimenters etc can be shown to be fitting with my definition. But I'm going to say from the outset that this is true for physical sciences, for a more broad idea of this second rank of knowledge we must allow for psychology, logic and other ways of predicting future mental perceptions a real place in the tent of science.

This gives the best theory

Just one last thought because I like it a lot. To the objection that science may not be the only way to gain knowledge about the world. Let us first say that we can never directly experience any object or have any form of knowledge of them except by means of perceptions. Now, suppose that some other means of discovering truth exists (be it tea leaves, holy texts, marxism or whatever), and claims that it does a better job of generating knowledge than science. Now to tell us anything that we dont already know this must make predictions about future perceptions. But, the understanding we get from science is the best prediction we have out of all the theories we have tried. Why cant we then just have as a theory "the predictions of marxism (or whatever) are correct". This is a scientific theory, if the other means really can give us knowledge then it must predict perceptions, because that is all we can ever experience that we dont already know. So then the best scientific theory must logically be at least as good as (if not better than) the tea leaves. So we can conclude (unless I've messed up this "proof") that science *must* generate the most accurate predictions that it is possible to make and that the correct way to gain knowledge is through science.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Philosophy - starting out

Before you start philosophy, or indeed any chain of deductions1 you need a firm place to start. For some this is obvious, it's God, or pure reason, or the spirit or some other such thing. I'm not so sure we can assume a starting point so easily without thinking about it. Others have tried to methodically produce such a starting point. Descartes starts out by trying to doubt everything, not because he wants to destroy knowledge but because he wants to find some indisputable fact, some indestructible nugget of truth from which he can base a chain of reasoning. Descartes takes his own existence, not as a body but as a collection of thoughts. He says that thinking implies the existence of the person doing the thinking.

I would like to borrow his idea of imagining there is a daemon trying to confuse and deceive us. Can we then allow ourselves to be certain about things like the existence of atoms? No, clearly not. What about the laptop in front of me? No, that is just as unsure. However, there seems to be a laptop in front of me. More accurately I can say that I experience a pattern of white and black patches of light. I dont see any way I can doubt that I experience this. For sure there may be no laptop, the demon may make me see white and black patches where I “should” see orange and purple, or the shapes may be changed. But stubbornly no matter how much I doubt the experience I am having the raw fact of its appearance cannot be doubted. Perceptions themselves, my experiences cannot be doubted.2 So I'd like to take as the raw atoms of truth not thoughts but perceptions, the totality of all I experience right this instant. 3 Descartes argues that the demon cannot deceive me unless there is a me to deceive, to me this rests too much on language to be quite convincing, I would prefer to argue that the demon cannot convince us that we are experiencing something that we are not, because in order to trick us, he would have to make us experience the thing.

This nugget of sure and certain existence is quite large, so I'd like to take a while talking about all the things I perceive. There are certain intuitions I have about my perceptions. The first an most important is the internal/external distinction. I perceive some shapes that I think of as being external objects and some that I think of as imagined objects. I perceive some sounds as being external things, some of being songs stuck in my head, and some (in the form of sounds identical to my spoken voice) that I regard as being my thoughts. For everything I think of as a sense there are imagined forms of them. However, there are other internal perceptions. Some imagined shapes that I “see” are identified as being “memories”, some imaginations of the future, some are imaginations of fantastic things.

The senses give us a lot of data to work with about this instant in "external" terms. But there a far greater depth in the "internal". I experience thoughts, emotions etc in a spectrum, going from the very concrete digital information of exactly reproducible "wordy" thoughts, to clear and sharp images, to fuzzy images, to fleeting impressions, to things just at the edge of awareness. There are many layers of internal thoughts and impressions just as there are many forms represented in many senses in the external.

We can "know" in the classical sense of sure and certain knowledge everything up to here. Beyond this point there can be no certainty about anything, we should not expect any, for if we do, we will be disappointed. Note, I cant even have totally sure knowledge of this kind about logic and maths. The statement "the square on the hypotenuse of a Euclidean right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides" requires some steps of deduction to be accepted, it is at least conceivable that I could have made an error every time I have proved it. This is not a very serious concern and one I will deal with later in its proper place, but it is enough for me to banish logic from the foundation and restrict it to the next few levels of deduction.


  • Can anyone think of a way that this foundation can be doubted?
  • Is it possible for me to doubt some of my perceptions?
  • Are there any things that I can also believe in with total certainty.


1I'm a mathematician, I think philosophy should be as deductive as possible, so sue me.

2This “argument from brute force of experience” is hardly stated here in a logically rigorous way, but I dont see any way to doubt it short of total insanity, so I'm going to accept it.

3Note I cant quite argue that “I“ exist. Descartes and many since regard it as obvious that because we say “I think” or “I perceive” that there must be an "I" to do it. This doesn't automatically follow, at least, it does not logically imply that the perceiver and the perception are real distinct entities. I will however talk about I, because it's grammatically much less cumbersome, however this "I" is a rather ill-defined idea, so I'll try not to argue about it.

Philosophy - Introduction

I'm going to try and take a bit of advice from the essays of Paul Graham (a brilliant essayist, do look him up). I'm trying here to produce a substantial work of philosophy, and I'm going to do that by the method of “Launch fast and iterate”. This is a first draft of a complete body of philosophy as written by someone who is very young and as such almost everything I propose will eventually be changed for something more rigorous. So please bear with the more foolish elements and help me make this better if you would by suggesting where exactly the error lies. I've read a lot of philosophic ideas, but by no means systematically or thoroughly. If you happen to know that a thesis of mine if refuted an obscure chapter of Hegel please dont assume I'm aware of this fact but bring it to my attention.

Before I start, my biases: I have lots. Anything in this that is anti-clerical, liberal, scientific, atheistic, opposed to strict rules, mathematical, philosophically linguistic or elitist should be treated with extreme suspicion and generally regarded as proving merely that I am a British mathematician at Cambridge.

A quick note on interpretation, all my ideas are to be understood as broadly as possible. When I say perception I dont just mean things like sight and sound, I mean mental perceptions too, imagination, intuitions, emotions, everything that can be described as being experienced. Also, I almost never have absolute or discreet ideas in mind, almost all the concepts I employ are fuzzy around the edges, for example, to say something is good doesn't mean it belongs to a firm category of things that are good, it simply means that it is towards the good end of a continuous good-bad spectrum.

I'm going to try and post one blog a week, each one on a new topic, hopefully every Friday but bear with me. I would really appreciate comments, even if it's just to say "I dont understand" because it's important to me that this is understandable, the aim of this document is that it should be a way to think about morality. It's important (if I'm right of course) that as many people read and understand it as possible. So if something is unclear please tell me.

Sections I cant guarantee I'll have exactly one post for each heading but here's a rough outline.

  • Starting out - sure and certain knowledge
  • Expanding to the future - science, the problem of time, the world, other people
  • Limits and extent of science - metaphysics, the past, religion
  • Morality - basic ideas, action desire, should
  • Morality in the real world - some moral debates as an example
  • Moral progress - conventional morality, expanding spheres of moral interest

Would anyone be interested in this? I'll try and put the first chapter up today.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Scientology is a cult.

Scientology is a cult. I'd like to work out why it is that this is considered to be defamatory. Scientology as the organisation responsible for a set of beliefs about the afterlife and spirituality 1. They are often and accurately described as a cult.

I think it's fair to describe them as a cult and not as a religion as they are really quite small. Small in this sense means a few things. Firstly membership, there are tens of thousands of Sceientologists2 compared to millions of even the smallest religions, (there are estimated to be almost 1 million Wiccans). Secondly this is a set of beliefs that is very young, L. Ron Hubbard made it up in 1952, compared to Islam, a very young religion at a merger 1400 years old. There's another factor too, it's a question of clubs. Micronations like Sealand or the Kingdom of Lovely are micronations because they are small, but also and more importantly, because real countries say they are. There are dozens of self-declared micronations out there that are larger in land and in population than Vatican City. Nationhood is about being a member of a club (in practice, of the UN) likewise being a religion means being respected as such and being invited to interfaith talks. (This is one possible argument why we could choose to not call atheism a religion). To me this is what we mean when we say a cult, we are thinking of a small, young, unaccepted religious group

So, I think it's fair to say that Scientology is a cult. But Sceientologists dont. Many have claimed that this is defamatory, and the word cult is derogatory in not uncertain terms. I want to work out why. The word cult is used about many strange and dangerous groups, the Jonestown Cult killed 400 of its own members, the branch Davidian cult fought a pitched battle with the American military during which 80 were killed. This image of the cult as having strange beliefs and an unhelpful obsession with violence etc is interesting. Because we know well that violence of the kind mentioned above is not unique or even more common in smaller faith groups, we also know that strange beliefs are not unique to such groups. (Look at it from an outsider's perspective, is it really more implausible that a galactic dictator brought billions of his people to volcanoes on earth and destroyed them with hydrogen bombs that that there are people alive who can cast a spell and literaly turn bread into the flesh of a 2000 year old dead jew).

So then if we can expect a cult to have violent elements and strange beliefs in ways similar to established religions, why is cult derogatory. There is a question of the club aspect of religions, many religious people (whilst clearly not agreeing with them) will respect the religion of another, but not of a cult member. I think there is an impression that cult beliefs are not very serious things. We dont think that anyone in their right mind can accept the beliefs of a cult. Tom Cruise is an international joke for being stupid enough to be part of a cult, often mocked by people whose own religion (if interpreted as literally as most interpret Scientology) contains elements just as foolish. Now, I must be clear that I dont want to dismiss thousands of years over very good theology by many of the greatest minds produced by humanity in explaining the strange beliefs in religions to make them more reasonable. There are great systems of thought around the great religions that are far more impressive intellectual achievements than the science fiction written by one guy that makes up Scientology's corpus. But is is fair for me to say that the beliefs of the average belier are made better by a more impressive theology? No, theology is not religion. Most religious people do not accept the version of religion presented by theology.

Is there a case for talking about liberal verses orthodox? For example, most Christians (in the UK at least) dont accept transubstantiation to be literally true (many do of course). But we expect that all Scientologist accept the Xenu story to be literally true. This is of course utterly false, for a start, the Xenu story is not told to the lower ranks at all, only the high level Tetans are expected to believe this, and how many of them believe it to be literally true and how many a good metaphor we cannot know. It's also important to consider how much the dogmas matter in a cult (matter of course to an outsider as we are considering defamation), it is assumed that pointing out how utterly insane one would have to be to believe in Xenu is enough to dismiss Scientology, if we do the same with transubstantiation then we are swiftly told "that's not the point". We think that ethics, or a relationship with God, or a sense of community are the key aspects of a religion, cults are often dismissed by pointing out that they hold insane doctrines.

There may well be a case that cult is simply a derogatory term because it contains all the negative qualities of religion without the implied respect for belief. After all, religions have a long track record of good deeds that we should (I mean this genuinely) respect and admire and it is assumed that cults do not. Religions help people out in times of trouble, and it is assumed that the beliefs of a cult cannot do this. Religions also present a strong tie to a community with shared heritage, this is not to say of course that cults cannot link us to a community, but the link to cultural heritage does not exist in a cult.

Scientology is a cult. We think this is a bad thing because the word cult presents a religion with all the stupidity and evil implied by religion but which we assume cannot have the redeeming qualities that religions have. I'm not sure the word really deserves the defamatory sting it has acquired. There are many cults (like Scientology) that are dangerous and evil, but the fact that they are cults does not imply this any more than is implied by being part of a religion.

1) What that word means is utterly beyond me, can anyone help? I've never seen a definition that wasn't “stuff that's ultimate or beyond reality”, well, like what for instance?

2) This is disputed by Scientologist who claim there are anything up to 10 million of them, but if so they're very reluctant to say so in surveys of religious belief and on the census.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Punishment or bribery?

See these figures? See how they prove that the evil Tories with the treacherous Lib Dem sidekicks are punishing people for voting labour? You can clearly see that most of the schools with cancelled building projects are in labour areas, even if we take into account the number of labour seat more labour areas are affected than conservative ones as a percentage.

Convinced? Ok, now look at this table that I made in 10 minutes from the data on the same page. (Note many projects are still open or otherwise undecided).

stopped unaffected total including undecided
open and academies

lab 293 235 655

con 152 61 270

lib 23 28 75

To me this doesn't look like the stopped projects are being targeted at labour areas. To me this looks a lot more like there were a lot more projects in labour areas anyway. If anything the fact that the majority of decided cases in Tory areas have been cancelled and the majority of decided cases in Labour areas haven't suggests the Labour areas are receiving positive treatment. To me this doesn't look, as some commentators have described it, like children being punished for their parents voting labour. This looks a lot more like the old government was engaged in bribery in labour seats on a massive scale. To me this looks like more than twice as many projects were started in Labour seats than Tory ones. To me, I think labour look like the bad guys here.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Human life is not infinitely valuable

Hi, thought I'd spark some life into the blog, been slow to update recently because I'm working on something rather large. (That's what he said, I know, way to raise the tone). But I thought I'd just jot out this idea.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of ethical maxims that are taken as read by all civilised people (including me) that are just flat wrong. I'm going to take a couple of quick examples.

  • Human life is infinitely valuable.

  • As long as you've got your heath nothing else matters.

These ideas are accepted without thought by almost everyone, I cant imagine anyone would say they disagree. The problem is nobody at all believes them. You dont for a start. You're reading this on the internet, so I assume you have access to at least a small amount of cash above the level at which you would literally starve to death.

If this is true, then by no means do you believe human life is of infinite value. Or even of particularly great value. At least in a concrete sense you dont. If it was true that you really acted like every life was worth more than any other thing, then you would not have any money. Consider the UN vaccination program going on right now across Africa to eliminate malaria. This will finish at some point due to lack of funding, and at the point where it does there will be that one last child who could have been helped if they had had just a little more money, the money that you didn't donate. I'm not trying to guilt trip you here, I'm simply stating a contradiction.

This isn't a situation where a really believed maxim isn't really followed through with. We dont, on the whole, feel guilty about not giving all our money to charities. We feel we should give something, but if pressed we would say frankly that we dont think it's reasonable to expect that we would give up even a slight level of comfort. It's not true that we feel we have to donate but it's only a temporary failing on our part that makes us not, we really dont feel ourselves as having committed the infinite moral failing that the maxim suggests.

As for health. Quite apart from how selfish this maxim seems on the most natural interpretation it is not true. None of us look after our health as if it was the only thing that matters. Because at a fundamental level it isn't. We all of us eat food that isn't good for us, we dont work out as much as we feel we ought to, we dont go to the doctor for every single little thing. Some of us go very far down this line, but nobody totally commits, everyone thinks about something else as well. We all have things that we enjoy doing in the time we dont spend working on our health.

Why do I point this out? Firstly because these maxims are annoying. In a discussion you can easily win points by connecting your thesis to some such rule and win the argument on the basis of a moral idea that nobody accepts. Secondly, it's important I feel to appreciate the gulf between theoretical moralities and how people actually make decisions. I'm not pointing out that people fail to live up to their own ethical standards, this much is obvious, everyone feels guilty about something. I'm pointing out something else, that people's real intuition about what they should do, what makes them feel guilty or satisfied, is very very far from what they claim to believe.

And this is important I feel. If we're arguing with a friend about some moral issue, the aim (at least in theory) should be to make the world better, (if we let “world” include the entire universe of moral relevance, including gods, afterlives, karma, the universal life force or whatever else). Each side in a moral dispute must by definition think the other is damaging the world with their immorality. If we really think our choices matter then, we should work hard in the field of morals, it's really important what point wins the argument. And I want to argue that as part of this we should be honest with ourselves. If we're arguing about Kantianism verses Aristotelianism we're not having a discussion about the moral decisions that change people's lives, we're engaged in what Dawkins might colourfully call “intellectual masturbation”, not that there's anything wrong with masturbation, it's great fun. But it's important not to confuse it for the real thing. There are moral debates about vaccination in Africa, about torture and the war on terror, about war and peace, good and evil, life and death. And we owe it to ourselves as a species to actually make progress in those debates. To get better answers to what things will make the world better and how we make people do them once we've worked that out. And ideas that nobody believes dont help forward these discussions.