Saturday, 29 December 2007

Flowers and the end of the year

Around 125 million years ago - December 29 on the Cosmic Calendar - the oldest flowering plant fossils currently dated were alive and blooming. Perhaps you can celebrate by giving a flowering plant to a loved one. This is not difficult, as only a few of the commonly-known plants are non-flowering.

Flowering plants include not only flowers themselves; they also include most trees, and even virtually microscopic plants.

Heck, you could even whip up a nice winter broth from nothing but flowering plants and water (seasoned with other flowering plants). Remember, we all depend on flowering plants for our survival (they constitute most of the photosynthetic base of the planetary food cycle).


I will be occupied for a few days now, and am unlikely to blog until several days into 2008. So here's a summary of the major events in the Cosmic Calendar over the next few days.

I apologize for the lack of links to my source material. I'm a little ill, and not up to hunting them all down. New Year's Resolution #1: Be more organized with the Cosmic Calendar announcements next year.
  • 30 December (tomorrow): A moment of silence at 10:00 might be an appropriate way to mark the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
  • 31 December, 10:30 pm (2.5 million years ago): Ancestors of humans appeared. This is the genus Homo, not Homo sapiens yet. Start working on your posture.
  • 31 December, 11:46 pm (420 thousand years ago): Domestication of fire. Light a thin candle (420 thousand years passes quickly in the Cosmic Calendar).
  • 31 December, 11:52 pm (250 thousand years ago): Birth of Homo sapiens. Find some other humans and welcome them to the planet.
  • 31 December, 11:59:40 pm (10 thousand years ago): Earliest farming. Phone a farmer and give thanks for the food you eat.
  • 31 December, 11:59:50 pm (4500 years ago): Pyramids built. That's right, you have less than ten seconds to embarrass your friends with your "Walk like and Egyptian" tribute to these great symbols of superstition and slavery.
  • 31 December, 11:59:59 pm (500 years ago): Astronomer Nick Copernicus and others mark the dawn of science, a new stage on our path to understanding our real place in the universe, which will eventually culminate in the global adoption of the Cosmic Calendar as an annual cycle of reality-based festivities.
  • 31 December, 11:59:59.9998 pm: Last year's New Year's Eve, at which you were woefully unaware of the Cosmic Calendar. Spend the last 2 milliseconds of the year thanking your good fortune for finding it in time for this year's festivities.
  • 1 January: The Big Bang! We get to start all over again, some 15 billion years ago.
See you all next year.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Cambrian Explosion

For those of you following the Cosmic Calendar, yesterday was the Cambrian Explosion!

Sometime around half a billion years ago, a great deal of diversity in animal body plans appeared in a relatively short period of time. This was a major event in the development of the rich and complex biosphere we now enjoy.

Yesterday is also an ideal start for a Cosmic Advent Calendar. After the Cambrian Explosion, there is some sort of significant evolutionary event at least every day (every 41 million years) until the present moment (midnight on December 31st). In my Google Calendar version, I have found examples for every day except December 25th and 27th. Perhaps you can help fill them in?

I would love to announce an event every day on this blog through the advent period, but I will be away for a week visiting family. So I'll cover my lapse by inviting you to do this the freethinking way.

First, check out the Google Calendar. Feel free to check my accuracy - I'm no evolutionary biologist.

Second, think of two or three of your favorite animals. Think of (or research) a significant evolutionary event for each. Put that event on your own personal Cosmic Calendar.

Third, meditate on how life might have been like in the deep past. Today, the first vertebrates appear: fish. Can you imagine a world without fish? With only one species of fish? What did it look like? The land is still effectively barren - no plants, no animals (not even insects).

Finally, do something that is relevant to the day's Cosmic event. My impulse is to make it food-related - eat fish and chips, or fish-shaped crackers.

Enjoy, and have an exciting Cosmic Countdown!

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Humanist calendars

I've already written about the idea of humanist holidays. Well, I've been a a little active on that, in between being a dad and working on my PhD.

The latest products of my inspiration are two public Google Calendars.

The first is a Cosmic Calendar:

The second is a list of Humanist Holidays:

Many humanists are interested in holidays that they can celebrate without compromising their beliefs - Thanksgiving seems safe; some form of a winter festival can be more iffy, but I don't see the problem (even the 25th of December has suitable humanist significance if you look). And there are other dates too with the potential to become new, secular days of celebration.

So tell me: What have I missed? What have I misplaced? What changes would you make? (Astrophysicists, can we fill in the early months of the Cosmic Calendar any more?)

I've made the calendars public not to persuade everyone to adopt my version of Humanist celebrations, but to invite everyone to comment, participate, modify.

So sign up for Google Calendars. Add one or both of these to your set of calendars (events for each one show up in a different colour). You can even import individual events into your personal calendar and modify them as you like.

Let me know what you think.

[Postscript: I notice others have taken parallel tracks in this pursuit. Pastafarians also have a Google Calendar resource to keep track of their seasonal observances (just search the public calendars for Flying Spaghetti Monster.)]

Monday, 10 December 2007

Celebrate today!

Thank goodness I check my favorite blogs with obsessive regularity - or else I might have missed the fact that today is Human Rights Day. It's the 59th anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly.

Thanks to This Humanist for letting me know in time. As many of you have noticed, I am eager to discover and celebrate days of significance to the Humanist community. Now I have something to put on December 10th.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Mooning over creationists

I don't usually like their way of deciding the answers, but creationists sometimes ask very thought-provoking questions.

I was checking the website of our very own Edinburgh Creation Group, and found a link to a site asking How did the Moon get into orbit? It's a fun little simulation. Try it out.

I love games based on orbital motion.

Now, the fact is that the Moon did get into orbit. But it's still worth asking why.

The simulation on the site is quite simple, and seems to involve some fairly straightforward orbital mechanics. And it seems to be impossible to get the moon into orbit unless it's already in orbit.

So tell me, what is the answer? Wikipedia's article on the Moon confirms that "Computer simulations modelling this impact are consistent with measurements of the angular momentum of the Earth–Moon system, as well as the small size of the lunar core." So what (if anything) is wrong with the simulation the creationists point to?

I confess, I'd rather accept a scientist's assertions over a creationist's any day. But better than simply accepting, and what separates thoughtful from dogmatic Humanists (or thoughtful from dogmatic people in general), is to simply accept nothing - to actually ask for the proof, and think about it.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Academic sense of humour

In case any of you are wondering why I don't include more humour in this blog, it's because I'm a linguist.

That means I find things like this funny (thanks to the blog of Cath, a recent commenter). See also the comment thread in Cath's blog post.

If you want more of this sort of thing, you'll have to ask for it. Otherwise, I'll keep my academic sense of humour safely bottled.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Watch your language.

I've been following with interest and increasing horror recent developments on the Think Too Much blog. I've had a soft spot for it ever since the author declared himself a secular humanist, at least partly due to an earlier post of mine on this very blog.

Hugo's recent post inviting "those that think they are atheists" to "drop all axioms that make you conclude 'God does not exist' " crosses a line for me. It is a line that other apologists for religion occasionally cross too, when they can't make their point another way. As a linguist, I regard language as a form of human social behaviour, and the line is crossed when people try to impose definitions or usages on language in direct opposition to the way language is actually used.

We have made “God” a label. We think “God is the creator of the universe”. By that definition, I understand why you call yourselves atheists. I did too.

Yes, "God" is a label. Yes, it is created by “us”, if by “us” you mean the worldwide community of English speakers through history. Like all other words in all human languages, it is a label created by people trying to communicate ideas. Its meaning is derived from its usage - words mean what the community uses them to mean. And in this case, the vast majority of speakers of English, historically and currently, use the word "God" to mean the supernatural creator of the universe.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), drawing on over a thousand years of English literature, gives a multitude of related senses in which the word "god" is used (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not). The only senses that do not refer to a supernatural being are metaphorical uses that clearly depend on the supernatural meaning.

Hugo says,

God is meaning in life.
God is our morality.
God is compassion.
God is love.
God is inquisitiveness.
God is mystery, the mystery of the universe.
God is everything we cannot pen down with modernistic rationalistic terms and words.
God is our very irrationality.

This is poetic and beautiful, and I am willing to enjoy the poetry and beauty of it - as I enjoy the poetic use of God in Einstein's "God does not play dice." But just as Einstein's quote becomes bad science if someone begins to take it out of its metaphorical context, so Hugo's poetic passage becomes bad linguistics when he says

[The evangelicals] don’t know what God is. The dictionary? The dictionary does not know what God is. The important thing to note: God exists by definition.

No. The community, not the individual, is the arbiter of what "God" means. Language is a human behaviour, like a playground game that children play. Tag doesn't change because one kid comes along and declares the rules to be changed. It only becomes a different game if everyone starts playing by different rules. Language works the same way.

Hugo tells us "You believe in love, compassion, inquisitiveness, communication, exploration? Please call that God." No thanks. I have perfectly adequate words for those things. Words like "love”, “compassion”, “inquisitiveness”, “communication”, “exploration”.

And the thing that the rest of us mean when we say "god" still needs a label. Not just because people like Christopher Hitchens want to mock it (it's hard to mock something you cannot name). But also because most religious believers in the world need a word to refer to the entity that they worship. God can still be thought of as mysterious and unknowable, but most worshippers still think of a conscious, supernatural (and often male) being when they use the word "God". That's where the meaning comes from. It's the picture we share in our minds when we speak the word to each other.

I understand Hugo's frustration. There are a lot of good things that have traditionally been bundled together with ideas of gods. It is natural for someone coming out of belief in the supernatural being to hope that he could keep the name “god” attached to the good things and jettison just the supernatural part of the definition.

But those things have had, and continue to have, definitions and labels of their own. What is distinctive about the label “god” is that it refers to a conscious supernatural being – in the West these days, it tends to refer to an exclusive, unitary, creator-of-the-universe conscious supernatural being.

Okay, now here's the good news for Hugo. Meanings change. The word “queer” wasn't about sex until the 1920s, according to the OED (nor was “gay” until the 1930s). Words change. As a speaker of Afrikaans and English, he has more direct experience of the long-term effects of that change than many of us. So it is possible that the English word “god” may come to lose its supernatural definition, and come to refer to all those things that Hugo wants it to mean.

It won't happen because he declares it so, but he and others like him may be able to influence the community at large, to participate in some conscious language change.

Queerer things have happened.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Check out This humanist

Check out This humanist blog, just started by a friend of mine.

She is a fellow friendly humanist, fellow Edinburgh resident, and has the distinction (in my mind) of having introduced me to the PHD comic strip - a must-read for any PhD student, regardless of where you're studying.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

To "A" or not to "A"?

Ever since the Out Campaign was launched, I have debated with myself over whether I want to display the scarlet A on this blog.

On the one hand, I am technically an atheist: my worldview lacks a positive belief in a god.

On the other hand, that is well down there in the list of the most important things about my Humanism - below things like "Treat others with respect" and "Seek the truth and avoid cheap knock-offs".

But on the other hand, "Atheist" is a more recognizable brand for my beliefs than my preferred label, "Humanist".

On the other hand (yes, I know, too many hands - I'm a linguist, not a biologist!), it's not my job to make it easier for people to pigeonhole me.

So I've waffled and pondered, and finally come up with a compromise that suits me. It sort of expresses the fact that I'm a Humanist who agrees with much of what the wider community of Atheists stands for. And, when it comes down to it, I really do think that one thing we (Humanists, Atheists, whatever) need is to simply be counted - let people know how common we are.

So here is my compromise:

The A is copyright-free, and although the BHA owns the copyright to the Happy Human, they seem to be happy for people to use and adapt it. So I'm comfortable that I can do the above without legal trouble. But what about community trouble - my fellow Humanist and Atheist bloggers and web-users in general?

What do you think? Do you use the A? Do you avoid it? Is my compromise helpful or am I just playing the unherdable cat, dividing what should be a unified effort into separate factions?

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Humanist education

Great news! A humanist educational foundation has just opened in Scotland: the Humanist Academy

As it says on their website,
The Humanist Academy is a not-for profit educational organisation promoting the principles and practices of Humanism throughout Scotland

This is a Scottish venture, and although it has connections with humanists around the world, its activities will be focussed in the Scottish education system. This is a positive step for humanism here, and a glowing example to humanists elsewhere to follow.

Look around the website. It just went live in the last day or two, and already there is a good supply of information and educational stuff (including several free PDFs to download).

(Sorry for the brevity of this post - the Humanist Academy deserves a longer, more gushing introduction. But I am eager to finish my PhD before my baby daughter finishes hers, so I'm spending less time on the blog for the next few months.)

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Intelligent baking

The theory of intelligent design (ID) holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.


I love analogies. Here's a little analogy that expresses something of my frustration with those who suggest that ID is a sensible scientific answer to scientific questions about our origins.

How was that cake made?

Scientist:The original ingredients - 1 1/2 cups of flour, 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of cocoa, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, 1/2 cup of vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon of vinegar, and 1 cup of cold water - were mixed thoroughly in a bowl, then poured into a cake dish to about 2 centimetres depth. It was then baked in an oven set at 175C (350F) for 30-40 minutes. Afterward, it was iced with a mixture of cocoa, icing sugar, and margarine (mixed to taste).


Me: How was that cake made?

ID proponent: A professional baker had to have made it.


The Darwinist's answer is satisfying, and productive. The ID person's answer answers nothing useful about the question - even if it is right, you still want to know how the baker made the cake.

(For those who are curious, that is an actual recipe, which has produced many delicious chocolate cakes. I do not know the original author, but I got the recipe from my mother-in-law. None of the cakes that I have seen produced from this recipe were made by professional bakers.)

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Ubuntu gets saved

I've long been a fan of the Linux operating system. Of the many, many varieties of Linux out there, my favorite so far has been Ubuntu - easy to install, easy to use, lots of community support, and it's pretty.

I was looking at their website the other day, curious about the latest version (currently 7.10, nicknamed Gusty Gibbon), and had a look around the different flavours of Ubuntu.

There's "regular" Ubuntu, which comes with the popular Gnome desktop environment:
Then there's Kubuntu, which has the same software but with KDE instead of Gnome:
Edubuntu comes with educational software, and is designed to be easy for non-techie teachers to set up a classroom network: Part of the virtue of Ubuntu is that it comes with easy-to-install packages for media playing and other tasks that have historically been difficult to do in Linux. Unfortunately, some of the software for these tasks is not technically "free" - they cost nothing to use, but they are not distributed under the GNU General Public License.

So for those with a particular attachment to that license and the ethical stance it promotes, there is Gobuntu:
And finally there is Xubuntu, for those with older systems (slower, less disk space) or those who want to squeeze the most speed and power out of what they have. It uses the bare-bones Xfce desktop environment.
I had come across all of these before. I went with the default Ubuntu flavour, because I like Gnome and it was easy. But the popularity of the Ubuntu family of distributions has led others to take Ubuntu as a base for developing other varieties. I hadn't heard of most of these before. They include distributions tuned to particular requirements such as for security, for compactness, for different languages.

But two jumped off the screen at me (so to speak):


That's right. Ubuntu CE (Christian edition), with a Jesus fish incorporated into the basic Ubuntu logo, and Ubuntu ME (Muslim edition), with an Arabic word inside the Ubuntu logo. (Anyone know Arabic? What does it say?) [Edit 12 November: I'm now pretty sure it's "Allah", the Arabic word for "God".]

The main differences between these and the standard Ubuntu varieties seem to be that CE and ME include special software - primarily for browsing the holy text and filtering web content. I gather that some customization of the graphic theme has also been made. The Christian version includes a What Would Jesus Download toolbar for the Firefox web browser. The Muslim edition includes an Islamic calendar and even a reminder application for the five daily prayers.

But more than any of this, I suspect that the main motivation behind each of these variants is to build an online community of like-minded people.

So I thought, what other religious-themed Linux variants are out there?

I came across Mythbuntu, but that's not religious - "Myth" refers to MythTV, a multimedia application.

And then there's Devil Linux (not based on Ubuntu), but again the religious implication is unconnected to the purpose of the distribution. It's a dedicated server distribution, which I know almost nothing about.

So then I wondered if there's a humanist-themed Linux. Shouldn't there be? Maybe I could slap together Ubuntu HE.

Then I remembered something I read back when I first discovered Ubuntu:
Ubuntu is an African word meaning 'Humanity to others', or 'I am what I am because of who we all are'. The Ubuntu distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world.
So there you have it. Ubuntu, plain old normal Ubuntu, is already a humanist distribution. (I would even say that Linux, and free software in general, reflects humanist values. But that's a theme for another post.)

The days when you had to be a hardcore computer hacker to get anything to work on Linux are behind us. I find Ubuntu as easy to work in as Windows - easier in some ways.

If you haven't tried Linux recently, give it a go. Get Ubuntu (free CD by mail or download) and run it risk-free from the CD to get a feel for it.*

And give me feedback. Do you think (like me) that humanist values lend themselves well to the free software philosophy of Linux (and Ubuntu in particular)? What about other operating systems - how do they (and the companies that produce them) strike you from the standpoint of humanist ethics?

* This post was written and submitted on a computer running Edubuntu from the live CD, with Windows XP installed and untouched underneath.

Language and the framing of popular science

Deena just showed me a very well-written article, "Watch your language", about the framing of science in public health. It looks at the issue of breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding infants, and how the language we use affects the perception of the alternatives in subtle but powerful ways.

The World Health Organization says on breastfeeding that:
Breastfeeding is the ideal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family and the health care system. Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by WHO as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age.
According to a 2005 survey, only 8% of babies (less than 1 in 12) born in the UK are breastfed exclusively for the first six months, despite the fact that 84% of mothers "said they were aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding."

This seems to be typical of developed countries.

Why? Read the article. I suspect that the ideas presented there are transferable to other public science issues.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

High-tech philanthropy: how you can be the next Bill Gates!

I have just come across a really cool initiative for educating children in developing countries: One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).

I know, I know. Just from the name, it sounds like the sort of pie-in-the-sky idealism cooked up by affluent do-gooders in their summer home who have never had to live on what people earn in developing countries.

But check it out. Really. Each unit costs only $200 US (less than £100).

As the founder and president of OLPC, Nicholas Negroponte, says, "It's an education project, not a laptop project." The design and distribution strategy reflect that. They have held to a number of simple design features in creating this laptop, the XO, which should make it ideal for use in the most under-developed areas:

... the laptop could not be big, heavy, fragile, ugly, dangerous, or dull. Another imperative was visual distinction. ... [T]he machine's distinctive appearance is also meant to discourage gray-market traffic. There is no mistaking what it is and for whom it is intended.

XO is about the size of a textbook and lighter than a lunchbox. Thanks to its flexible design and “transformer" hinge, the laptop easily assumes any of several configurations: standard laptop use, e-book reading, and gaming.

... The integrated handle is kid-sized, as is the sealed, rubber-membrane keyboard. The novel, dual-mode, extra-wide touchpad supports pointing, as well as drawing and writing.

... It contains no hazardous materials. ...

In addition, —for use at home and where power is not available—the XO can be hand powered. It will come with at least two of three options: a crank, a pedal, or a pull-cord. ...

Experience shows that laptop components most likely to fail are the hard drive and internal connectors. Therefore, XO has no hard drive to crash and only two internal cables. For added robustness, the machine's plastic walls are 2mm thick, as opposed to the standard 1.3mm. Its mesh network antennas, which far outperform the typical laptop, double as external covers for the USB ports, which are protected internally as well. The display is also cushioned by internal “bumpers.”

The estimated product lifetime is at least five years. To help ensure such durability, the machines are being subjected to factory testing to destruction, as well as in situ field testing by children.

(from the features page)
And, more importantly, they are inexpensive. They are built as simply as possible, and run with only free software (their conditions for software inclusion are analogous but not identical to those found in the excellent GNU General Public License).

You can participate in various ways - by volunteering, by donating to OLPC. But my favorite is the "Give 1 Get 1" campaign. You pay for two of them; one goes to a child in the developing world, and the other comes to you for your child to use. Let's face it - it's a great little device, especially for the price tag.

So from 12 November, for a fraction of the cost of a normal laptop ($399 US, or £191.93 at today's exchange rate) you can buy your child a sturdy, versatile educational tool while contributing to an innovative and promising effort to lift poor children out of poverty through education.

As a long-time fan of laptops, of open-source software (particularly Linux), and of education, I find this plan very exciting. I would love for Kaia's first computer to be an XO. (I kinda think it'd be nice to have one myself, too.)

Of course, I'll also have to keep my eyes on other projects with similar goals (see here, here, and here). They all seem to be interested in the charitable goals of helping kids in developing nations, so I don't think competition and rivalry will become too much of a problem.

Let me know what you think. I am currently in the first flush of excitement over this idea - I haven't turned my critical-thinking fully on this idea. Would you contribute to this project? Would you buy one of these for your own child as well as for a needy child?

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Troubling thoughts about superstition

This post is inspired by thoughts from two actual researchers into the psychology of belief: Stuart Vyse, author of the engaging book Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, and Bruce Hood, who gave a talk at this year's Edinburgh Science Festival. I think everyone should learn something about the psychology of belief, as an inoculant against falling for common pitfalls in thinking. But that's a topic for another post.

I recently had a disquieting train of thought about the difference between superstitious and rational beliefs.

At their root, superstitions are simply over-eager assignments of cause and effect.

A famous baseball player (says Vyse) once had a great game after eating chicken. Thereafter, he always ate chicken before a game, in case not eating chicken caused him to have a bad game. This behaviour survived (one infers) countless games where he ate chicken but didn't win.

Then there's the pigeon experiments. Put a pigeon in a room, and it'll do its pigeon thing. Then start to introduce rewards (food pellets, for example) at random intervals, not affected by the pigeon's behaviour. They will begin to obsessively repeat a single behaviour (say, turning left) that they happened to be doing when the first pellet appeared. Apparently, they think that doing that causes the reward to appear, even though pellets don't appear all the time they exhibit the behaviour.

It seems that superstitious behaviour - generalizing cause and effect from a single accidental coincidence - is a natural consequence of the mental makeup of widely-different vertebrate species. And at its root is the slightly over-productive instinct that, if A is followed by B, then A caused B. It's a useful heuristic in evolutionary terms, but it's also a classic post-hoc logical fallacy.

On the other hand, in science, we try to distinguish real patterns from coincidences in a reliable way. We run trials. A team of scientists suspects that eating chicken causes winning, so they set out to test it. They run an experiment. In one part, athletes eat chicken before the game 500 times. In the other part, athletes eat something else before the game 500 times. The team can then see whether meals with chicken are, in fact, followed by wins (compared with how often chicken-free meals are followed by wins).

But science is a lot of work, and everyday life is filled with situations where we need to decide causation. We can't always get rigorous evidence about whether chicken is reliably followed by winning.

So at what point does the not-quite-scientific belief turn into a superstitious belief? The pigeon or the athlete infers causation on the basis of a single event: that is superstitious. The researcher infers causation on the basis of a thousand-subject scientific trial: that is not being superstitious. Where exactly is the crossover between science and superstition?

The troubling fact is, of course, that there is no crossover. There is no point at which superstition suddenly becomes science.

I probably have several beliefs about causation which are much closer to superstition than they are to science on the continuum. From beliefs about people (first impressions - this person is shallow, that person is reliable) to ideas about how to get a computer to perform a rare task (like getting the headphones to work on my Linux machine at school).

This is disquieting indeed, since science and scientific thinking form a central part of my ethical outlook on life. Am I actually just as guilty as my superstitious ancestors of basing my beliefs on bad evidence?

Not completely. There is some reassurance to be had. It has to do with certainty, and I get to quote a Scottish philosopher at the end.

Facts that have been studied and established with scientific experiments deserve a high degree of certainty. (Never absolute certainty - that is reserved for instincts and delusions.) Facts that come from extensive experience but haven't been rigorously tested scientifically deserve confidence, but less than scientifically-tested facts. And so on, down to say, me clicking a box in the control panel of my computer and finding that my headphones work again. It's only happened once, and I'm not prepared to undo it to see if it works again, but I will maintain the belief that, should the problem present itself again, the same solution will work again. This is a very tentative belief - it would take very little evidence to persuade me that it is false.

Is it still a belief then, if it's so tenuous? Of course it is. It will guide my actions should my headphones stop working again.

So here is the conclusion to this troubling line of thought: No matter who you are, you almost certainly hold some beliefs that are superstitious, in that they are based on the same sort of evidence as the athlete's chicken=winning belief. This is unavoidable - not just biologically but practically in our busy lives.

But it's not a bad thing, so long as you (in Hume's words) "proportion [your] belief to the evidence."

Those people who suggest that you cannot live entirely on sound, empirical scientific beliefs are right. It would just be too much work.

Those who suggest that you have to commit yourself wholeheartedly to unsupported claims are wrong. There is nothing wrong with admitting you don't know. It doesn't preclude acting decisively, and it is a good inoculant against unjustified dogmatism and fundamentalism.

[edit 2007 November 1]
Just a day after writing the above, I got to the section in Richard Dawkins' book, Unweaving the Rainbow, where he discusses just this. He also reminded me of the source of the pigeon experiments - they were performed by the great psychologist B. F. Skinner. The boxes in which the pigeons underwent these experiments are called Skinner boxes.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Identity and forgetfulness

A bit of philosophical dissonance to ponder ...
The observation is one of the most replicable in the literature: Whether tested in 1893 or 1999 (West & Bauer, 1999), among adults in Western cultures, the average age of earliest memory is age 3 to 3½ years. (from the APA Online)

Four- and three-year-olds can readily recall events from their second year. Yet, by the age of ten these earliest memories have receded behind what's been dubbed the "reminiscence bump." (from some recent Canadian research)

Add to this the sense that, without my memories, I would cease to be really me, and I find myself in a philosophical predicament. My daughter, Kaia, is unlikely to consciously remember anything that happens in the next two years. By the time she's ten, she'll probably have the adult "reminiscence bump" - no conscious memories before three years old.

What does this mean for her identity? Will ten-year-old Kaia be a literally different person from the Kaia I see today? Or am I wrong that my memories are key to my identity?

Perhaps - probably - there is a sensible compromise that will make sense of both the inescapable certainty that the baby is the same person as the teenager and adult, and of the intuition that our memories are a key to our identity.

But I haven't worked it out yet. For now, let me know what you think. How do you resolve this conundrum?

Saturday, 13 October 2007

The Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme

Here's an interesting experiment from the mind of Pharyngula, exploring the idea of memes. But more importantly, it's a fun little game. Here it is ...


There is a set of questions below, all of the form , “The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is…”.

Copy the questions. Before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

> You can leave them exactly as is.

> You can delete any one question.

> You can mutate either the genre, medium or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change “The best timetravel novel in SF/ Fantasy is…” to “The best timetravel novel in Westerns is…” , or ”the best timetravel movie in SF/Fantasy is…, or ”The best Romance novel in SF/Fantasy is…”

> You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form “The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is…”.

> You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions.

Please do include a link back to the ‘parent’ blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers.

Remember though: your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate, and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.


My great-great-grandparent is Pharyngula.

My great-grandparent is The Flying Trilobite.

My grandparent is Leslie’s Blog.

Papa is The Meming of Life.




Pharyngula says:
  • The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is…The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers.
  • The best romantic movie in historical fiction is…Cold Mountain.
  • The best sexy song in rock is…Gloria, by Patti Smith.


The Flying Trilobite says:

  • The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is: Hyperion by Dan Simmons.
  • The best romantic movie in scientific dystopias is: Gattaca (1997)
  • The best sexy song in rock is: #1 Crush by Garbage from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet soundtrack
  • The best cult novel in Canadian fiction is: JPod by Douglas Coupland (2006)


Leslie’s Blog mutated it to:

  • The best timetravel television in SF/Fantasy is: Heroes
  • The best romantic movie in scientific dystopia is: THX 1138
  • The best sexy song in traditional is: “Chan Chan” by the Buena Vista Social Club

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

THE MEMING OF LIFE’s mutation:

  • The best romantic movie in scientific dystopia is: THX 1138
  • The best sexy song in traditional is: “Chan Chan” by the Buena Vista Social Club
  • The best satirical movie in comedy is: Life of Brian

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

And the Friendly Humanist's contribution:

  • The best romantic novel in scientific dystopia is: The Dispossesed
  • The best sexy attire in traditional is: the codpiece
  • The best satirical movie in comedy is: Life of Brian


Now to propagate it:

I'll see if the Friendly Atheist picks the meme up from me before he gets it from Meming of Life. (What does sexual competition look like in meme-propagation? Will it matter to Hemant that his blog inspired my blog, right down to the title?)

And in the parenting line, perhaps AgnosticMom would like a go.

Another parent, at A Mindful Life - like me, she probably doesn't have time for this sort of thing.

A recently out humanist who has recently grappled with creationism, ThinkTooMuch could probably use the time playing with his fellow freethinkers.

Finally, I'll try to pass on my memes to the top of the critical-thinking food chain: Ben over at Bad Science would probably enjoy this.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

The descent of Mills

Two comments.

First, our beautiful daughter is now immortalized in a blog, hosted by her mom: The Descent of Mills.

Second, what Dale said.

Now back to gazing at Kaia.

Friday, 28 September 2007

What is humanism?

Humanism, at its root, is about humans.

Right now, for this humanist, it is about the two heart-wrenchingly beautiful girls sleeping in the bedroom - one exhausted after her first ten hours in the world, the other drained by an eighty-hour ordeal bringing her out.

I will have more to say later about bravery and stamina, about love irrevocably chosen and love irrevocably thrust upon me by my biology, about care and respect in the medical professions.

But for now, I leave to spend some more time staring at their peaceful, perfect selves.

Monday, 24 September 2007

A humanist calendar ...?

At our recent student fair, I saw an interfaith calendar that highlighted all the various religious festivals and holy days of several world religions. Of course, humanism wasn't on it – not only because humanism is not a religion, but also because, although we are a community of people with shared values, we have not really established a yearly calendar of dates special to our community.

Throughout history, one thing that has united human communities is a common calendar of observances. From the solar equinoxes and solstices indicated by Stonehenge, to the holy days (and weeks and months) of any contemporary religion you could name, to the secular holidays celebrating days of national importance (Canada Day, the Queen's Birthday, Family Day), every human community has shared important days of the year. These days commemorate events of historical importance to the community (national independence, birth or death of important religious figures), mark the seasons (harvest festival, solar equinoxes/solstices), or simply set aside time for things the community values (Family Day, National Day of Prayer, National Day of Reason).

Humanists have some such days, though they may be local rather than general to the community at large. For example, our Edinburgh branch of the Humanist Society of Scotland holds a Darwin Day event on February 12 (generally a discussion with an evolutionary theme). Many American non-believers hold the National Day of Reason, on May 3 (giving blood) – in part to celebrate reason and in part to protest the National Day of Prayer on the same day, an unconstitutional incursion of religion into their officially secular state.

For those of us with families who celebrate the standard holidays of the dominant culture, there are clever alternatives. The fun and creative Church of Reality website suggests celebrating Newton's birthday on December 25 (“because Newton actually was born on December 25th”).
“We call the holiday Crispness because it's about keeping your mind crisp. And it's not a coincidence that it's the same day as Christmas and the Yule holiday where Christmas came from. It is the day that we celebrate the Tree of Knowledge, which represents the sum total of all human understanding. We use the traditional pine tree, which is already a very fractal looking tree to represent the Tree of Knowledge. The tree is decorated with lights and ornaments symbolizing The Sacred Network or the Internet.”
It's fun, it's festive, and it means that Deena and I can celebrate December 25 with our (nominally Christian) families without a nagging sense of dishonesty to our values and beliefs. (Remember that using the dates of existing celebrations for a new community with very different beliefs is an ancient and honorable tradition.)

I just learned (a day too late for this year) through Dale McGowan's blog that the fall equinox (September 21) is the International Day of Peace. This is something most humanists can get behind. Earth Day covers the opposite equinox, on March 21.

A source of many potentially awesome holidays, at least in the final few months of the year, is the Cosmic Calendar, brainchild of the great Carl Sagan. In it, the entire 15-billion-year history of the cosmos as we know it is scaled into a single year, with the big bang at the start of January 1st and the present moment at the end of December 31st. Along the way you get events like the formation of the Milky Way galaxy (May 1), the Solar System (September 9), and the Earth (September 14), the origin of life (September 25), on up through our ancestors: eukaryotes (November 15), worms (December 16), fish (December 19), insects (December 21), dinosaurs (December 24), mammals (December 26), primates (December 29), hominids (December 30), and then down through the evening of December 31. Go see the whole year here or here.

There are clearly many potential humanist holidays to choose from – some already established in certain communities, others new and untested. Deena and I already celebrate some of them (such as Darwin Day and Crispness), and plan to celebrate others in coming years.

What do you think? Do you, as a humanist, celebrate humanist-themed days through the year? Do you simply take the holidays of the culture around you, and spend the time in your own humanist pursuits? Do you think we'll ever have a common calendar of humanist days, or are we simply too individualistic for such conformity?

Are shared holidays too much a part of religion, and not appropriate for humanists to buy into? How should we balance individual thought and independence with community and interdependence?

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Julia Sweeney blog!

Just wanted to rejoice that I have just discovered a blog by the incomparable humanist comedian, Julia Sweeney:

I haven't actually read much of it, but after we got the CDs for Letting Go of God, Julia could probably describe what she had for breakfast every morning and I'd be riveted. I don't want to miss anything she writes. If her Letting Go of God book is a verbatim transcript of the monologue (tracts of which Deena and I have practically memorized already), I'll still get the book and read it and probably laugh at all the right places too.

Sigh. And I thought I wasn't the type of person who was a fan. It's just exciting to know of someone famous who can articulately and entertainingly describe the way I see the world.

(This blog entry has not been sponsored by Julia Sweeney, nor encouraged by promises of merchandise to the author. All opinions and attitudes reflect the particular tastes of the author, and no warranty or guarantee is meant or implied that others will have a similar experience. Although if you don't there's probably something wrong with you.) ;]

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Is this thought my own?

I had this thought a few weeks ago - don't know if it came from someone else or is my own:

If someone showed me proof of the existence of a god, I would cease to be an atheist, but I would still be a humanist.

I think it's a brilliant thought, and a very snappy expression of one reason I like to think of myself as a humanist rather than as an atheist.

But I don't want to go around claiming credit for it if I actually heard it from someone else, and just forgot the source. I haven't been able to find it online (using relevant Google searches), but that doesn't mean I couldn't have heard it somewhere, or read it in a physical book.

So this is a plea to any well-read, knowledgeable reader to let me know: have you heard this somewhere else, and can you tell me who first came up with it?

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Interfaith ... er ... inter- ... um ... -something

This past week was the first week of term, and as students returned and prepared for classes there were many events for them to attend.

One of these was the Societies Fair, where all the student societies had stalls to promote their group and recruit new members. It was the Humanist Society's first time at this major promotional event. We doubled our numbers – almost twenty more people signed up on the spot! We also got over a hundred e-mails for our announcement list, so we'll probably have more people sign up when they see what cool things we do (and what cool people we are).

In addition to all that, I got to talk to people from the religious societies. (Our table was in the same area as theirs.) I learned a lot about the Baha'i faith from the folks over at the Baha'i stall. I met someone from the Jewish Society, who mentioned the diversity of their members – from conservative to secular. I chatted with folks from the Christian Union, who apparently coordinate several interfaith activities. And so on.

The full list is on the Student Association (EUSA) website. See us, tucked in there between the Alpha folks and the Islamic Society? When we first formed, this category was called “Faith groups”. I think it made sense for our society to be grouped with these others, but suddenly the category title was inaccurate. All it took was a quick request to EUSA, and it was changed to “Faith and belief systems”.

I really enjoyed talking with folks from the religious societies. Not only did I learn something about their beliefs and activities, but of course they learned something about humanism and our society's activities. Like our regular blood drive. (Okay, we've only been once so far, but we plan to go again after three months.) Several members of religious societies thought that would be a great idea – they might even join in next time.

Ramadan has just begun, the Muslim month of fasting which commemorates the revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammed. At the end of Ramadan, the Islamic Society invites non-Muslims to join them for a day of fasting. They collect sponsorship, and donate the money a charity. I think that it would be interesting to try this out myself.

From all this discussion about cooperation between our societies, a slight problem arose. What word do we use? If it's just between religious societies, the word interfaith is appropriate. But once humanists come along, we suddenly aren't all people of faith. So I need your suggestions.


Cooperative events?

Faith and ethical cooperation?

Sigh. Help!? We need something that doesn't sound like flavourless PC pap, but which does convey the idea of inclusive cooperation between people with different ethical and religious views.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Time and what is really mine

I planned to go to see a friend's band play a gig yesterday evening. I haven't seen them play yet, and I really thought this would be the first time.

Then I got a call from Deena late yesterday afternoon. She was feeling some mild contractions. Baby wasn't due for two more weeks; Deena still had another day of work before beginning her maternity leave.

Naturally, after a moment of dithering (surely baby isn't arriving quite so soon), the husbandly/fatherly hormones hit my brain and rushed to my bike, sped over to her work, and met her to take the bus home.

By then, it was becoming clear that it was just Braxton-Hicks contractions (ie, not labour contractions). Not a great surprise, but there was no way I'd go to see the band after that.

Deena is now officially on maternity leave. A few more B-H contractions today, she tells me, but no reason to think actual labour is imminent. I still have plenty of work to do – not only on my PhD, but also around the flat to prepare for baby's arrival.

One thing this episode brought to my mind is the undeniable fact that my time, our time, doesn't really belong to us in any sort of meaningful sense. No more than the current belongs to the canoe. We make our plans, we navigate the eddies and curves in the river, but ultimately it is not by our own efforts that we move on toward the sea. The only merit that earns us passage is our buoyancy, and the alternative to that is hardly a real choice. (Okay, the metaphor gets a little thin here. What is the sinking canoe? Death, perhaps.)

So although I may use phrases like, “wasting my time” and “use my time wisely”, I know that these are just polite fictions – euphemisms to help me ignore my powerlessness over one of the great impersonal forces that dominate my life.

What other fictions might I indulge in? Would I recognize them all, or do I need vivid wake-up calls like the birth of a new life to snap them into focus? I read a novel like Ursula Le Guin's
The Dispossessed and wonder how far any notion of “property”, of mine and yours, reflects the actual reality of the world.

But there are some things of mine that seem to be beyond the reach of even this aggressive philosophical barrage.

My love. Not in the sense of the smitten poet, speaking of a person who is “his” or “hers”. Rather, the love that I give – my love for Deena. It is mine because I am its source. In creating it I let it go, I pass it on. The same goes for my deeds. My thoughts. My blog entries.

My child. The process of letting go may take longer, but eventually, like my parents did for me, I will have to finally relinquish any claim over this person who will so soon be appearing in our lives.

Is it just me, or is this list of things that are “mine” in a deep, irrevocable sense also some of the things that we humans value the most in our lives?

Monday, 10 September 2007

Fundamentalism and terrorism - food for thought

I recently had to shift my attitude to fundamentalist Muslims a little.

I heard an interview of Canadian Muslim Mubin Shaikh on the radio. He is undeniably a conservative – I would even say extremist – Muslim. He has campaigned for Sharia law to be given a place in the resolution of family disputes such as divorce in Ontario. Apparently trying to defend his position, Shaikh says “I think the main issue is that the Western, secular version of equality is not what you will find with Islam.” His campaign, I'm happy to say, failed. A community can follow any customs its members wish (short of actually violating the laws of the land), but religious laws have no place in the legal framework of a secular society. Period.

(Shaikh and his fellows point out that similar arbitration boards exist in Ontario for the Catholic and Jewish communities to settle family law matters. I would say these are equally problematic, and should be got rid of for the same reasons. If people wish to sort out problems in a religiously-mandated way, they can do it without involving the secular law. If they wish to access the authority of the secular government in settling disputes, they can accept the lack of religious authority in that context. It's a clear, fair choice.)

But that's not the only way he has been active in the Muslim community in Ontario. You see, he became a member of a jihadi organization planning terrorist attacks in Toronto, acting as an informant for CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service), helping to foil the plot and put several would-be terrorists in jail.

He didn't just speak out against terrorism – though even that is an important part of keeping marginal nuts marginal in one's community. He acted against criminals whose deeds would have rendered his home less safe, and brought condemnation, fear, and hatred down on his family, friends, and neighbours. “People are doing this in the name of Islam, and it's hurting me more than anybody else. It's hurting the Muslim more than anybody else. I mean, you know, apart from those who actually lose their life, it's people like us who suffer more than anybody else, and that's what people have to understand, because now a guy like me who's an agent of the state, responsible for bringing these guys down, I'm still called a terrorist in the street.”

Well, I still disagree with his position on Sharia law, and I completely deny the truth-claims of his religion. In fact, he doesn't sound to me like a very pleasant person in general. But he's no terrorist. So in the future, I'll have to avoid making the automatic leap from conservative Muslim (or even self-described fundamentalist) to terrorist. Shaikh demonstrates that they're not the same thing.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Sales techniques and human rights

Picture this. You receive a letter at your home from a company letting you know that you have not purchased their product this year. They gently remind you that everyone who uses their product is required to pay for it. They give you information on how to pay for it.

Over the following months, you get further letters – each one less friendly, more stern than the last – detailing the penalties if you are caught using their product without paying for it. They begin to talk of sending salespeople to your door to confirm that you aren't using the product (but they call them “enforcement officers”).

Eventually, a salesperson does come by. You haven't used their product; you have been threatened by mail for several months; and now someone is asking to be let into your home to confirm that you haven't stolen their product without paying. Not a police officer. A salesperson.

How do you feel about this sequence of events? What kind of country do you think this happens in?

Welcome to the world of the British TV Licence Fee, administered by TV Licencing.

Now, I acknowledge that with a service as difficult to box up as broadcast television, it is difficult to come up with a viable and fair business model. Ideally only those who use the service will be charged (rather than just paying for public broadcasting through general tax dollars that everyone pays), but how do you determine who needs a license? They need to ask people if they use a TV to receive broadcast signals. But, in order to filter out liars and cheats, they need customers to feel that the salespeople have more authority than they have. (No salesperson – even a TV License “Enforcement Officer” – ever has the right to enter your home without your permission, or even to demand any information of you, such as your name.)

In other words, in order for what seems like a fair system work, they need to make it seem like a system that isn't fair – a system where salespeople have the right to spy on you (with their detector vans), the right to come into your home, the right to treat you as a criminal until you prove you're not.

Many countries have a licence fee; many others don't. What do you think? Most people use a television; is it better to slightly mistreat the minority who don't in order to make an otherwise fair system practical? Or is it more fair to charge everyone indirectly, through general taxation, so that nobody's privacy or legal presumption of innocence (article 11 here) is violated?

Deena and I are lucky – we're assertive, and we know our rights. But many people are less well-equipped than us to rebuff the TV Licencing people. How many elderly people, slightly confused with early Alzheimer's disease, are badgered into signing away a portion of their meagre incomes by the bullying letters (see the “Correspondence” section of this website)?

Were it not for this fact, I might be at least ambivalent about the TV Licence. But as it stands, I can't see that it's defensible in its current form in a free and democratic society.

Am I taking this too personally? Making a big deal out of nothing? What do you think?

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Becoming a person

It's now less than three weeks until the expected arrival of our baby. The physical symptoms are real enough – Deena started feeling baby move months ago, and I first felt movements shortly after. But there is still an abstract quality to the knowledge that these symptoms come from a human – a little person almost ready to come into the world.

Technically, baby could probably survive being born today. Our baby is already capable (with a great deal of help) of making that first, momentous step into independence. And yet, in another sense, this fledgling human isn't even a whole person yet. It has no name. It hasn't been held by our arms. It hasn't yet taken the uncensored atmosphere into its tiny lungs, drawing its own sustenance directly from the world.

I have a mind that yearns for quantum distinctions. Yes or no; right or wrong; child or adults; eggshell or off-white. Yet some of the most important milestones along my path as I've grown into the wise and seasoned almost-thirty-year-old I am now have involved seeing through the clear boundaries I've erected, seeing into the subtle, gradual shadings that separate one thing from its neighbour.

So now, as I tumble toward the terrifying, compelling, humbling brink of fatherhood, I contemplate this question: What is the boundary of personhood? When does a collection of atoms, molecules, cells, become a person?

There are the biologist's answers. A person begins at conception, when a unique genetic fingerprint comes into being that will (if circumstances permit) develop into a unique, autonomous individual. Is she a person when she is capable of surviving outside her mother's womb? Or is he not a person until he can function without his parents' help and support?

There are the philosopher's answers. A person begins when self-awareness dawns in the developing brain. Or is it when the capacity to experience physical sensations begins? Or when the young child is capable of exercising free will (rather than being driven exclusively by instinctual drives)?

Or the social anthropologist's answers. A person begins when the community begins addressing an individual as a member of the group (whether this occurs before, at, or after birth). A person begins after a particular social ritual welcoming the new being into the world and the community.

And, for all of us, there is of course the most obvious moment: the birth itself. The person is born the moment the baby emerges from his mother, and becomes physically a separate object in space. Given that so much of our language, custom, and law are built around this moment, above all others, I suspect that this very literal emergence, this clear boundary between in and out, is the one programmed into us biologically as the start of a new life, a new person.

But I can't ignore the fact that, for at least the past four years, Deena and I have had this person in mind. We have been shifting and shaping our lives subtly towards this new person we are about to meet. My mom sent us a quilt for the baby a year or two ago. And since we've known Deena was pregnant, we have addressed the baby (embryo/zygote/fetus/...) by a variety of nicknames; we have picked out actual names (not to be revealed to anyone else until baby is here); we have talked to baby, referred to baby's will (“Baby wants ice cream!”), to baby's moods.

So what does it mean for someone to be a person? If it involves others' attitudes, can a person begin to exist before sperm meets egg? If it involves the social embrace of the community, is someone not fully a person between birth and that welcoming ceremony?

I feel that our baby is almost, but not quite, a whole person now. I love this being already, but it's still a love partway between the abstract if fervent love of a longed-for lover and the love of a dear relative I talk with on the phone. I suspect that birth will seal it, complete the personhood of this already-loved being who come so far toward becoming a full human.

How do you feel about these questions? Have you experienced parenthood? Witnessed births? Mourned people who were never born? Is there a clear boundary in your mind between not-yet-person and person? Why is that boundary where it is? Why is it important?

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

A humanist continuum

In a recent comment, Hugo brought up the fact that there are different factions within the community of humanism/freethought/atheism/brights/etc (the multitude of labels kind of says it all). And it can be difficult to bring us all together under one tent long enough to do something constructive.

In our little fledgling student society here in Edinburgh, we have few active members but they are scattered across the spectrum. One illustration of some of the more incendiary differences is how we view liberal believers.

If you (as a humanist) come across someone who self-identifies as Christian, but who acknowledges that God’s existence is not absolutely certain, and whose actions embody values you share – honesty, care for human beings, respect for science, concern for the environment – what is your attitude to that person?

Do you:

(a) feel they are being intellectually dishonest or inconsistent? If they are Christians, they should believe the Bible as it is written, not just take the “nice” bits and ignore the rest. If they can’t swallow the Bible whole, then they shouldn’t call themselves Christians at all. They should pick a belief system and be consistent, rather than trying to straddle incompatible worldviews.

Or do you:

(b) rejoice that, though religious, this person is not a threat to the secular society or to the things you most value as a humanist? You want a world where people uphold values like honesty, respect, and all the rest. It doesn’t matter if they do that while calling themselves humanists or Christians or Muslims or Pastafarians or whatever.

I hereby dub those who prefer option (a) the conversionists. The label matters as much as the beliefs, because sensible people using the label “Christian” simply provide cover for the nutcases who also use that label. If the content of their beliefs is humanist, they should convert to calling themselves “humanist” rather than “Christian”.

Those who take option (b) are the substantivists. It does not matter that someone calls herself a Christian, so long as the substance – her actual beliefs, values, and actions – include honesty, care for others, respect for science, and so on.

I tend to take the substantivist position. Our student humanist group had Christian students signing our form (we needed 20 student signatures) so we could become an official university society. “I’m not a humanist, but I support you in forming your society.” If they can do that without becoming humanists, then I think we can cooperate on other fronts too without feeling as though we need to convert them.

On the other hand, the conversionist idea that labels are important becomes very attractive to me when I’m told that my humanist values amount to belief in a god. (I’ve had this from a believer and from a non-believer). They don’t. A god is a very particular kind of being: omnipresent, powerful, intelligent, conscious. I don’t believe such a being exists. Trying to redefine god to prove that everyone believes in one is insulting both to most believers (who believe in something more than an amorphous “whatever” god) and to most nonbelievers (who tend to have well-considered reasons for their position).

My humanist friends here at both ends of the scale seem to agree with me that this distinction is useful. What do you think? Is it informative and helpful to identify conversionist and substantivist influences in the humanist community (or in yourself)? Or is this simply another way to divide us into smaller, weaker groups?

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

The Value of Celebrity

This post is inspired by the Celebrity Atheist List. Thanks Hemant for reminding me of that website.

What is the point of celebrities? Should humanists look for celebrities among their ranks?

There are different ways to see this.

Looking at the reality TV shows, the singing and dancing contests, designed to generate celebrities under our watchful eyes, it's easy to become cynical. Celebrities exist to be famous. No real point there, except for the celebrities.

Try this alternative out, though. Celebrities are billboards for ideas. When people learn that intelligent, entertaining, and famous people like Joss Whedon, Isaac Asimov, Keanu Reeves, and Carrie Fisher are non-religious, it might make them think. It probably won't make them become humanists, but it might make them think twice before painting us with too vile a brush. They've seen the billboard, and it's given them the opportunity to think about the product being offered. And the more billboards there are out there advertising humanism, the more likely someone is to try out the product - learn a little more about these ideas that so many people share.

There is a third way to see it. If you are a humanist living in a community where nobody is openly non-religious, where the atmosphere is hostile to skepticism, celebrities seen on television or read about in books may be the only exposure you have to people who think like you. If you know (for example) that two of the cutest actors in show-biz are non-theists, then every time you see a movie with Keanu Reeves or David Duchovny in it you'll feel a little less lonely. It may be somewhat escapist, but sometimes you do just need to escape for a bit.

I don't read the celebrity magazines, but I do have some favorite celebrities. I am a fan, not just of people whose celebrity is based on their humanism (Julia Sweeney, Richard Dawkins, Hemant Mehta, Dale McGowan), but of actors.

And not all of them are humanists. Before I say something withering about believers, I have to consider whether I want to paint Christians such as Bishop Spong, Tom Hanks, Mr T, or Alice Cooper with the same brush.

And, moving beyond celebrities, I am lucky enough to have people in my own life who exemplify a wide variety of beliefs and positions. I have my own Russes for Christianity, for Islam, for conservative politics, even for people who enjoy eating that orange stuff.

It's best to have such people among those we know personally. But failing that, celebrities are a good backup.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

My newest humanist hero

Deena and I are big readers, and so part of our preparation for parenthood has been to get hold of some key parenting books.

One which we have already read cover-to-cover, but whose practical relevance may not kick in for a couple of years, is Dale McGowan's collection of essays by various humanists, atheists, and others: Parenting Beyond Belief. Awesome book, by the way. Even before our kids are old enough to start trying some of the things mentioned in the book, it provides great reassurance for us as secular parents.

For some reason, I didn't really notice that he also has a blog sparked by the book. It was just before I started this blog that I found it, through his interview with my Friendly Role-Model, Hemant Mehta.

And it's great. The whole blog. I've read a good dozen or so of his blog posts now, and they're brilliant. Funny, moving, informative. He does what I aspire to do - describe what it's like to live as a humanist, compellingly and with mind-ticklingly lyrical wordcraft. It's brilliant.

Read it.

How did you come to humanism?

I've sometimes wondered how a person's history might affect their attitudes as a humanist.

For example, I sometimes suspect that people who were once evangelical believers become even more vocal non-believers - either because they are predisposed to that brand of belief, or because they want to distance themselves from beliefs they once held so firmly, and now reject. I know that the behaviours that I am most impatient with in others are those that I have overcome myself in the past.

For myself, I was raised non-religiously in a country where religion is neither widely-scorned nor overly prominent in the public sphere. Perhaps this is why I feel generally unthreatened by religion even though I have no religious beliefs. (I like to think this makes me a more balanced humanist, but all it makes me is more balance with respect to my particular experience of secularism. How well this translates to other situations is an open question.)

What do you think? Have you noticed a pattern in how different humanists' past experiences affect their attitudes to religion and believers?

Belief and understanding

Two podcasts that I listen to regularly are Skepticality and Point of Inquiry. And both of them have recently done pieces featuring religious believers. Skepticality included as a large part of a recent podcast a speech that deist Hal Bidlack gave at The Amazing Meeting. Point of Inquiry featured an interview with human genome scientist and evangelical Christian Francis Collins.

I was nodding (and, at times, almost crying) throughout Bidlack's speech – it moved and inspired me.

The interview with Francis Collins, on the other hand, had me shaking my head and grinding my teeth. I couldn't believe that someone with such apparently superb scientific talent could trot out such an uninformed critique of the non-theistic worldview.

Now, I don't want this blog to become a place for me to rant about people I disagree with being stupid, and why, and where they can put their blankety-blank opinions. One of my values as a humanist is to focus on actions and consequences. Why does Collins bother me, while Bidlack doesn't? What do I want my reaction to accomplish? How can I help that come about?

First, self-understanding. Why does Collins bother me? He bothers me for the same reason that Richard Dawkins bothers him: because the thing he takes to be my worldview is in fact a caricature of how I actually see the world. He presents a simplistic, ill-thought-out atheism as though that is the best that millennia of skeptical philosophy and reason have to offer. When DJ Groethe suggests that there are more sophisticated ways of seeing the world naturalistically, Collins dismisses those as not being what most atheists hold. I wonder how many humanist gatherings he's gone to? I wonder how many non-theistic weddings or funerals he has attended? (Of course, this is exactly the response that Dawkins and others provoke from believers - including Collins. “That's not what I believe in. You're ignoring the more sophisticated theologians through history. Most people don't believe that any more.”)

So Collins irritates me because, when he talks about my beliefs, he misrepresents them.

Why doesn't Bidlack bother me? Because he doesn't mention my beliefs. Simple as that. His speech is about his own beliefs – their merits and their weaknesses – not about the merits or weaknesses he perceives in mine.

For this same reason, religious people are much less upset at Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God or the book Parenting Beyond Belief (edited by Dale McGowan) than they are at the “evangelical atheist” books of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others. It works both ways.

Second, the goals. What do I want my reaction to accomplish? Well, I would love for Francis Collins to learn more about my beliefs. Not necessarily to convert him – it'd be nice, but it's unlikely. More so that, next time he talks to someone, he doesn't misrepresent me and my fellow humanists. Also, I think he is ideally placed to influence the many religious believers, both in the US and elsewhere. The Baptists I know here in Edinburgh are more likely to be persuaded by Collins, a fellow evangelical, that evolution is a safe idea to believe and that ID isn't supportable, than they are to listen to me or even a qualified scientist like Dawkins telling them the same thing.

Finally, the means. How do I accomplish these goals? Well, I could rant about how wrong Collins is about so many things. But this would not incline him to listen to me, so my first goal would fail. And it wouldn't have any positive effect on other believers' uptake of the constructive side of his message. All it would do is give me some emotional release, and I can get that just ranting with my fellow humanists in private. Alternatively, I could try something more constructive.

I could recommend that Francis Collins (and any other religious person who wants to speak from knowledge rather than ignorance) read one of the many excellent introductions to the humanist perspective. Richard Norman's On Humanism is an easy read, and is gentler toward believers than Dawkins or Harris. (It's the book that introduced me to humanism as an organized and coherent worldview, rather than just a disparate list of things I already happened to believe, so I recommend it to people new to humanism too.) Julian Baggini's What's It All About? is an excellent exploration of the meaning of life by a humanist philosopher. Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God monologue is excellent, so order the CDs, Dr. Collins.

As for how to help Dr. Collins influence other evangelicals positively, if a religious person expresses doubts about (or interest in) evolution, I can point them to his book. It has a far better chance of being read with an open mind (and thus influencing them) than Hitchens or Harris, or even the relatively gentle and thoughtful Dawkins.

Okay, I think I've managed to avoid ranting and be constructive. Perhaps I'll wrap up this post here. I have to confess, it takes effort and attention to focus on what I want to accomplish with a reaction, rather than just to react. Good humanist lesson, though.