At Church

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:09 am

So, I went to church yesterday, for the first time in about a year. We had been going to Kenmore Baptist for a year or so before that, but a few clashes of ideology and politics, and just a general malaise meant we no longer really ‘fitted’ there.

Personally I’d be comfortable enough just doing without church altogether, but Sue wanted to go, and keeping her happy is what life is all about, so I happily dressed up a tad more than usual (but still in jeans) and tagged along to Brisbane Central Seventh-day Adventist.

We both grew up up Seventh-day Adventist, so everything was pretty familiar – more so than it had been at the Baptist church. We’d been attending more ‘contemporary’ styled churches, both SDA and otherwise, for quite a while, but this was very old-school in style: hymns from the hymnbook, played on piano and organ.

I actually enjoyed that more: I’ve ranted here before (1, 2, 3, 4 – number 3 is the best one to read if you only read one) about ‘contemporary’ Christian music and worship styles. This church had a few hymns, interspersed with other things, and that suited me fine. An old Islander couple played the music – she on the organ and he on the piano, and he was actually quite funky, hanging off the beat and mixing it up a bit.

I think before we stopped going to church I’d got to the point where I’d focus on one irritant – a prayer that God would support ‘his people Israel’ while they bombed the living crap out of the Palestinians again, or whatever – and miss anything good that was going on. Having the hiatus meant I was ready to look for the good as well as the bad.

The bad was there – the mission story was about how a young man set out to prove that Sunday-keeping churches were right and the Seventh-day Adventists were right, but was convinced by studying the Bible that the SDAs had The Truth and the other churches were wrong – but I was able to just let it slide. I’ll probably post something later this week about my attitudes and ideas, but having more distance from that stuff means I just let it be what it is.

But there was good to: the sermon was clear, engaging and encouraging, and people were very friendly and included us in discussion, invited us over for coffee and so on.

I suspect we’ll be going back, at least for a few weeks, and see where it goes from there. I don’t feel as though I need it for myself, but I’m also not scared of it or repulsed by it, and if I can have a happy wife, I’m happy…


Fusion’s Getting Closer

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:45 pm

It’s the Holy Grail, the solution to all our energy woes (and the related issues of climate change, pollution and peak oil), and it just got a step closer. One approach to sustainable fusion energy: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8485669.stm


Happy Australia Day

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:42 am

So, it’s January 26 – Australia Day. I’ve talked a bit before about the date, and even started a Facebook group in support of changing it. Here’s the blurb from that site:

There have been calls for some years to look at changing the date of Australia Day from January 26. This group supports the call to look for a new date to celebrate Australia and Australians.

The current date commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. That is the beginning of Australia’s European history, but it ignores the long Aboriginal history that Australia already had at that time, and it could be argued that it also focuses on England and Europe and ignores both earlier visits from other countries and later immigrants from all over the world.

This group is not committed to any particular date, and encourages thoughtful discussion rather than heated rhetoric. Inflammatory posts will be deleted.

Support an Australia Day for *all* Australians here.

But I’d like to leave that issue on the side of our plates for the moment. I’d also like to leave aside both the more lefty ‘black arm band’ (thanks John Howard, you odious little git) view of history that refers to the 26th as ‘Invasion Day’ and focuses only on the harm done to the Aboriginal people by the first white settlers, and also the claiming of the day by violent nationalistic morons who use it as an excuse to take their racism and xenophobia out for a trot.

No, I’d just like to focus on what it was originally about: celebrating what we have been given and what we have achieved in this great country, and how incredibly blessed we are to live here. Having lived in other places, some of them salubrious (Canada) and some scary (Papua New Guinea – though it’s also beautiful) and visited other places in Europe and Africa and North America, I really appreciate the climate, the wealth, the freedom and safety and the mateship and mutual support we enjoy.

Australia definitely means more than just it’s white heritage – both the earlier (Aboriginal) and later (Irish and Chinese, Greek and Italian, Lebanese and Vietnamese, Sudanese and so on) waves of immigration are important contributors to what Australia has become. But us white guys (well, I’m Irish, which would have made me a definite second-class citizen in the early years when the English ran the place) can also be proud of our contribution to building the country. Sure, horrible things were done and should be remembered and regretted, but great things were done too (and on that, check out the ‘True and False’ post from earlier today – the bell curve applies here too).

So, to all my Australian friends – Happy Australia Day! Let’s take a day to enjoy what we have – to really stop and think about how blessed we are. And perhaps also to think about how we will be – what we want Australia to look like in the future. Going back to the way it was when we grew up is not an option – and while it’s nostalgic to think back, not even really that attractive when you look at the whole picture. We have no choice but to go forward… so where do we want to go? If we don’t choose a future actively, it will be chosen for us.

The True and the False

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:27 am

Neil Kelly, in his response to my previous post, raised the issue this way:

The impossibility of a theistic morality is exemplified and illustrated in the necessity of religious apologists’ reliance on the logical fallacy of “true” and “false” believers to sustain their stance.

I could have sworn I’d already written something specifically on this issue, but when I went searching back through the 1200-odd posts I couldn’t find anything that hit it squarely, so I guess this is today’s topic.

What he’s talking about is just that if you challenge believers (given Neil’s own particular biases he’s talking about theists, but it turns out to work for believers in any system of thought at all) about the evils done by their fellow believers, they tend to say that the people who do evil are not ‘true’ believers, they are somehow ‘false’.

I’ve danced around the edges of it, in two separate posts both called ‘Ascription Errors’: September 2008, September 2009. An earlier post from 2008 on the Bell Curve also dances on a similar floor… It’s probably worth your while to read those three posts before proceeding with this one…

So, I guess, from my perspective, it’s kind of solved. Whatever the claims to morality of any corporate group, the reality is that every group contains its own bell curve of the very good and the very bad but mostly just the average. No dogma apparently has the power to transform every person who follows it to the right-hand side of the bell curve, or even to move the mean very far: people are just people. They do things, then find rationalisations… and the dogma is a handy framework for providing the rationalisations.

The trickier and perhaps more controversial implication of the idea is that it becomes impossible – or at least illogical – to critique a dogma on the basis of the actions of its evillest adherents. Arguments about atheism that are made using only the actions of Stalin are no more valid than arguments about Christianity that use only the Crusades. It might be possible to make arguments against the claims of a particular dogma to moral superiority, but in the long run, arguments for and against particular dogmas must be made by considering all of their adherents, not just whichever tiny tail of the bell curve is convenient to consider for the purposes of the argument…


Theism, Atheism and Morality

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:04 am

It keeps on coming up in the wide variety of web discussion forums I read, as well as in face-to-face conversations: what is the relationship of religion and morality? For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll stick to Christian religion, since that is most often the context, it’s the context I know best and the discussion will get too unwieldy if I try to take on all religions. By ‘atheism’ I mean disbelief in any deity who acts as a supernatural guarantor of morality – that could include deism, I guess, and even some other sorts of gods. Often the pointy end of the argument is the existence of an afterlife where wrongs are righted and balance is restored – good that fails to be rewarded in this life and evil that fails to be punished is redressed there.

Christians tend to claim that, in the absence of God as a divine source and guarantor of morality, life is meaningless, good and evil are meaningless, and we may as well be absolute nihilists and hedonists who abuse others for our own pleasure. Let’s leave aside the slight suspicion that this simply reflects what they would really like to do, but the fear of God keeps them from, and realise that most of their arguments seem to come from the ‘fear of punishment/hope of reward’ level of moral reasoning. To be fair, though, some come from other levels, but it seems to be from the conviction that a moral code cannot be truly universal without a superhuman source.

They also tend to claim that all morality in the world has its source in Judeo-Christian influences in law and society – that when atheists act morally it’s through social pressure or a social code, but that it was Christianity that created that kind of society in the first place. That argument might be sustainable in Western countries such as the US that grew out of a Christian tradition, but it’s pretty hard to sustain with a broader view of the world and countries like China and India that are not at all founded in that tradition.

Anyway, as I have probably mentioned before, I find Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning to be an invaluable tool for thinking about these kind of questions. I thought it might be worthwhile to spend a little time looking at Kohlberg’s stages (or, as I tend to think of them, categories, since I’m less convinced by the notion of linear, unidirectional progress through them in a particular order) in the light of theism and atheism.

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation (What’s in it for me?)

This is pretty easy to explain from a theist orientation: God, the judgement and afterlife punish the wicked and reward the virtuous, so ‘you’d better be good for goodness sake’. From an atheist perspective, it becomes about the here-and-now consequences, both positive and negative, of our actions: doing bad things can lead to arrest or fines from the authorities, divorce from our partners, ostracism from our friends and so on. Doing good things can lead to opportunities, positive rewards, esteem and so on. The punishments and rewards are on a different scale, but they’re definitely there.

Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity (Social norms) (The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)

From a theistic perspective, Stage 3, interpersonal conformity, is redefined somewhat. It’s not society’s approval (‘good boy, good girl’) that is being sought, but God’s. What is praiseworthy is largely defined by the Bible, and may even be in conflict with what the rest of society thinks (society is usually seen as corrupt anyway). Stage 4 is where many Christians, particularly those of a more fundamentalist1 stripe, tend to focus. The Ten Commandments is one very clear set of rules by which to live life, and of course the Bible also has other rules, or rules can be created based on it.

A rule-keeping morality is characterised by statements about whether particular conduct is within the rules, and also with obsessive consideration of the letter and spirit of the law. I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist household, so the Fourth Commandment, the one about keeping the Sabbath holy, was emphasised. In that place and time it was not appropriate to go swimming on the Sabbath (doing one’s own pleasure), but if you went on a nature walk along the beach it was OK to take off your shoes and paddle in the water… And so on.

For an atheist, Stage 3 is about approval from the rest of society – or from a subgroup. Outlaw bikers might like to think they are the ultimate rebels and need no-one’s approval (sometimes actively seeking the disapproval of mainstream society), yet of course they do seek the approval of others within their own subculture. Everyone likes to be liked, and seen as a ‘good bloke’ or ‘good woman’, and seeking this kind of approval tends to reinforce moral behaviour, with the “what will people think?” level of reasoning. Stage 4 tends to get transferred to other kinds of laws, particularly the laws of the land. This is the level of moral reasoning of the people who get very offended if someone exceeds the speed limit – not at all because of the threat of danger to that person or others, but specifically because the person is breaking the law. The same applies to all other laws: moral behaviour is defined by legal behaviour. The notion that a law can be immoral might be accepted in theory, but the response will usually be ‘but it’s the law!’

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)

Maybe some of you can correct me, but I’m not sure Stage 5 is understandable at all from a theistic perspective. A social contract takes the form “I won’t steal from you and you won’t steal from me: and if we both abide by the contract then both of us will be able to keep our stuff safe”. I guess a theist might argue that God’s laws encode the same kinds of principles as a social contract: the Ten Commandments do a decent job of encoding most of the common social contract principles. But that’s not quite the same level of moral reasoning, since the reason for keeping the Ten Commandments is not the social contract, it’s ‘because God said so’. (Which boils down to either Stage 4 law-keeping or Stage 1 punishment avoidance.)

For an atheist, Stage 5 is kind of the default (for someone who has developed in their moral reasoning beyond the earlier stages): we do things and avoid doing things largely on the basis of the Golden Rule (even if we don’t ascribe that to Jesus) – “would I want it to be done to me?” It resides in empathy and an ability to imagine consequences: at Stage 5 a person avoids drinking and driving, for example, not because it’s illegal, but because they can imagine what it would feel like to kill someone in an accident that was their fault.

Stage 6 is probably in many ways the defining point of difference. Theists say “how can moral principles be universal without a divine guarantee?” Any scheme that is human is on a human scale – and, of course, one of the hidden assumptions in this discussion is that Christian doctrine says all humans are Fallen, sinful, corrupt. Anything that arises wholly from human sources, therefore, is flawed by definition. Without God to offer a ‘God’s eye view’ of morality from a position above and beyond the human, all sets of moral principles are ‘merely’ social constructions – and social constructions founded in sinful human self-love and selfishness. Without a divine guarantee, they claim, moral principles are meaningless – fleeting and foundationless.

Atheists, on the other hand, believe that humanity is all we have available when it comes to developing moral principles. Humanists (there’s a large overlap) tend to believe that humans are inherently good, inherently likely to seek to do right and to enhance others’ lives and experiences. Humanists would see humans as almost inevitably generating moral codes based on social contracts and avoidance of harm, and then generalising those beyond the local context and the ‘in-group’. And for atheists, all we’ve got is all we’ve got. If humanity does not create a morality, then there will be no morality. Since there clearly exist moral codes in the world, they must have arisen through human processes. Our moral reasoning becomes a matter of applying these principles, and seeking to sieve out our own self-interest from our considerations so as to do the moral thing. Someone at Stage 4 will really struggle with the ‘steal medicine to save dying person’ dilemma, since it involves law-breaking, but someone at Stage 6 will recognise that values, while universal, are also relative, and saving a life outweighs protecting private property. And so on.

My goal in this whole post is not to support one or the other perspective, it’s to try to help people from each perspective see how it looks from the ‘other side’. A big problem in the debates I’ve been reading is blanket statements about what theists and atheists ‘can’t possibly do’ within their own moral reasoning, or about ‘in the absence of God there can be no universal moral principles’ and so on.

I guess my point is really that Kohlberg’s useful scheme – and the very real and easily observed categories of moral reasoning that it describes – doesn’t actually distinguish well between theistic and atheistic moral reasoning. Each level and stage (with the possible exception of 5) can be understood from within either perspective. Irrespective of whether we think people with a different perspective from us do tend to use all available levels of moral reasoning, it seems fairly clear that they can – that the opportunity exists. That neither theism nor atheism rules out large swathes of the ability to think and act in moral ways.

  1. I’m using the term descriptively, not pejoratively


This Century’s Big Physics Breakthrough?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:53 am

At the end of the 19th century they thought they just about had physics sewed up. Just a few loose ends to tidy up, but basically the big theories were all under control. Then, in 1905 and 1915, a patent clerk named Albert Einstein published two papers that turned the physics world on its head. A heap of other physicists worked out the implications, leading to relativity and quantum theory. Without the latter, the computing revolution would have been impossible. Physics being turned on its head massively influenced technology, changing what was possible, and changing our lives forever.

Einstein spent the last half of his life trying to create a theory that combined gravitation (which he had revolutionised already with general relativity) with the other fundamental forces of the universe, and did not manage to do it.

A new theory by a Dutch physicist, Erik Verlinde, has just been published online. It’s very, very early days, and too early to make the call, but it does seem to offer the potential to revolutionise the way we understand gravity. This New Scientist article does a nice job of explaining the basics: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527443.800-the-entropy-force-a-new-direction-for-gravity.html

There have been plenty of cries of ‘wolf!’ but wouldn’t it be cool if this was the biggie for the 21st century? Understanding gravity has the potential of being able to control it – and if it got a whole lot cheaper and easier to get payloads out of earth’s gravitational well, space exploration and asteroid mining could ease a whole lot of earth’s shortages. Of course, that’s just my guess… I can guarantee that it’s hard or impossible to see the potential new technological applications from here…


Meaning and the Multiverse

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:15 pm

Currently reading Ian McDonald’s (excellent and highly recommended) science fiction novel ‘Brasyl’. It’s (at least in part) about the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum theory. This view – which is held by many physicists – suggests that there are many universes all existing side by side ‘in the same space’ (but that’s not really a very helpful way of putting it) – a ‘multiverse’.

In the novel it’s possible for some people to move from one universe to another, or to see into multiple universes – in reality, as far as we know so far, that’s not possible. But other universes effect this one, at least at the quantum level. The many worlds interpretation explains why a photon of light, which behaves in many ways like a particle, can appear to go through both slits in Young’s double-slit experiment and form interference patterns… the photon passes through a particular slit in this universe, but through the other slit in ‘nearby’ universes, and this somehow effects what happens.

Anyway, that might be a bit too much detail. The point is, all universes are equivalent – there’s not one ‘parent’ universe and lots of ‘daughter’ universes. And in other universes, things have happened differently than they have in this one: the photon has gone through the other slit. In larger, human terms, that means that there is a replica of each of us in an infinite number of other universes, and for that replica both accidents and choices have gone differently1.

In other universes, Sue decided to go to college in the 2 years I took off to earn money, and we never met. How different would I have been? And my life? In others, my bike accident killed me instead of just breaking my leg. In other universes I ended up working as a cleaner in a factory all my life instead of completing my teaching degree, or stayed an anaesthetic technician. And so on.

What really got me thinking, though, was “Does the existence of the multiverse (if it exists) make our choices more or less meaningful? Or does it make them all meaningless?” After all, any choice that I make one way here in this universe, an infinite number of other ‘mes’ in other universes make the opposite way. That’s as simple as decisions about whether to take a drink from my water bottle now or in 10 minutes, and as momentous as deciding whether to pull out in front of the truck that ends up killing me or to wait a moment and look again.

My own answer is that things mean exactly as much, whether or not the multiverse exists. I can’t influence other universes and they can’t influence me (except at the very tiny quantum level). So my real decisions here have real consequences here… and the ‘mes’ in the other universes will just have to live with the consequences of their own decisions!

  1. A theologically interesting example: in many universes, Eve resisted the blandishments of the snake and therefore Jesus was never incarnated…


Evidence, Eminence and Vehemence

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:51 am

Heard the tail end of a very interesting story on ABC Radio National yesterday afternoon. It was based on some ideas from Peter Heimlich, the son of the Dr Heimlich who gave his name to the Heimlich Manoeuvre for helping people who are choking. Here’s a link to the program: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/healthreport/stories/2010/2768800.htm.

Something that particularly caught my ear, though, was a comment along the lines “that’s not evidence-based practice, it’s eminence-based or maybe vehemence-based”.

It’s a nice play on words, of course, but it encodes some useful ideas. I’ve talked here before about the notion of evidence-based practice, as well as some of my misgivings about it, but the idea of basing what we do on the best available evidence is a sound one. And recognizing that a couple of the less-sound alternatives include basing it on the prestige and reputation of the people advocating the idea (eminence) or on how loudly they yell (vehemence) is useful.

Maybe we can add a false (or even true) sense of urgency – imminence – to the mix. Anyone else want to play? Letting the aging Baby Boomers make all the decisions – senescence-based practice!


Oxford Electric Bell

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:51 am

With thanks to my friend Gromit (Clive): http://atlasobscura.com/places/oxford-electric-bell

The world is enriched by oddities like this.


Better than ‘Good Enough’

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:18 pm

I don’t really do New Years resolutions1. But chatting with my friend Neil Kelly the other day he asked me whether I had any, which helped start me thinking. I’m also on my last day of 3 weeks of much-needed holidays, well rested and refocused, and ready to take stock of 2009 and think about what I want in return for my time in 2010.

I have this problem. Things tend to come easily to me, in terms of my chosen career. Whatever gifts and talents I was born with, along with the ways in which the people in my life, my education and my own activities have developed those gifts, have meant that I find it very easy to read, write and teach. A paper that would take many of my colleagues a week to write takes me a day. I can toss off a sonnet or sestina, or one of the other ‘difficult’ forms of poetry, in half an hour or so. And so on. Not bragging, because not much of it is down to me at all. Just the way it is.

But because it’s so easy, I have little patience. I tend to whip out something ‘good enough’ and then not have the patience to polish it until it’s really excellent. I have a good memory for references, which is one of the things that makes me quick to write, but it also means I tend to rely on the old references I already know rather than go looking for new ones. And so on…

Same with teaching – I can pretty much walk into a classroom with minimal preparation and teach an engaging, interesting, informative lesson while flying by the seat of my pants. I see the student survey data for the whole School Of Education, and know that I’m one of the top rated teachers.

And yet… I want to do better. I think there are three roots to the problem:

  1. Internalising other people’s standards: I’ve gotten locked into what ‘counts’ for promotion and annual reviews and other people, rather than focusing on having my own standards for myself.
  2. The aforementioned facility: It’s easy to do a ‘good enough’ job and then just take it easy and have more leisure time. But it leads to personal dissatisfaction.
  3. A philosophical view on the impossibility of perfection: Perfection is possible in very few facets of life. It’s possible to get 100% of the notes right in Guitar Hero… but even there there’s margin for error. And certainly in teaching there is always more preparation that could be done… and you do have to have a life. But I think letting go of the goal of perfection has caused me to also lose sight of the goal of excellence… and I need to reclaim that.

I was planning to apply for promotion to Associate Professor this year. I thought I had a ‘good enough’ case: I worked pretty hard on building up my publication record last year. But I realised today that (a) most of the new stuff I published last year was ‘good enough’, not really top-drawer excellent and (b) I don’t want to just scrape through my promotion hearing. What I have in mind is a slam dunk, a dead cert, a response of “Holy crap, why is this guy not applying for full Professor?!” So I’ll put off the application until 2011 and aim to get the runs on the board this year to make that a reality.

So, there it is. No huge promises or commitments2, just a quiet determination within myself to do better than ‘good enough’ this year: to aim to really satisfy myself that I’ve achieved excellence in all facets of my job.

  1. Though I did make the rather geeky joke that mine for this year is 1280×1024…
  2. But yeah, writing it here for my friends to read does constitute an accountability measure of a sort