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.