Whether “denial of belief” or “lack of belief”, atheism is a non-ism

September 15, 2018

The conventional use of “atheism” is to describe a denial or a rejection of any belief in religions and gods and deities. To try and avoid the negative connotation of merely rejecting and denying the beliefs of others, some have redefined “atheism” to be the “lack of belief” in religions and gods and deities. As the American Atheists state

Atheism is not an affirmative belief that there is no god nor does it answer any other question about what a person believes. It is simply a rejection of the assertion that there are gods. Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system. To be clear: Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.

This replacement of “denial of belief” by “lack of belief” is  merely a cosmetic change. A lack of belief cannot define what there is a lack of belief about. To have a lack of belief in something specific requires that “something” to be defined. That “something” is always gods as variously defined by the beliefs of others. To have a lack of belief in the beliefs of others is no different then to a rejection or denial of those beliefs.

Atheism is entirely reactive. It is concerned with rejecting, denying and ridiculing the belief systems of others. It offers nothing itself in answer to the fundamental questions which led to the rise of religion and their gods in the first place. It is not difficult to attack and ridicule beliefs which – by definition – cannot be proved.  Many prominent atheists in recent times have been philosophers who have criticised religions (and their gods). These include such luminaries as Bertrand Russell and more recently, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. They follow a line of thinkers who go all the way back to when religions were invented. For example, atheist schools existed to counter the Vedic religions as far back as  2,500 – 3,000 years ago. But what is striking is that “atheists” could not exist until religions existed and they had something to attack. (And note that even chimpanzees “believe” in a Sun-god). To criticise religions and their gods is not wrong and I have no time for organised religions and their gods. But that criticism is of no substance unless followed up by addressing the questions which led to the very adoption of the beliefs being torn down.

Atheism is not in itself an “ism”. It is not a belief system or a philosophy or even a practice in itself. It has nothing to defend. It avoids attack because it has no beliefs to offer as answers to the fundamental questions of the beginning of time, the universe and everything. As an “ism” it is empty of substance. (I ignore the “agnostic” which is little more than a politically correct way of avoiding being labelled an “atheist”).

Richard Dawkins prefers distinguishing theist, agnostic and atheist positions along a spectrum of theistic probability—the likelihood that each assigns to the proposition “God exists”

It is only when you get to “determinism” – which incidentally includes a rejection of religions and gods – before the “ism” begins to gain some substance. “Determinism is the philosophical theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes”(But determinism and the limits of science is another story to be discussed elsewhere). To be an atheist provides no substance. You must be something else first.

The proposition that “God Exists” is logically meaningless until “God” is defined. This is the wrong proposition to be addressing. Most religions do not logically come to the conclusion that “God Exists”. They start with that as an assumption which – as with all such assumptions – is taken as self-evident but which cannot be proved. To ridicule this assumption is not difficult. Religions avoid the more fundamental questions by invoking their gods. But this is a method used also by physics and cosmology. The universe is assumed to be homogeneous. The four laws of nature operating in this homogeneous universe are invoked by physicists to avoid the question of why the laws exist in the first place. The Big Bang and Dark Matter and Dark Energy are invoked by cosmologists to avoid the question of why time exists and what time is and what the universe is.

The proposition which must be addressed first is “the unknowable exists”.


 

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Swedish voting procedure – An illusion of secrecy

September 11, 2018

Sweden has a population of just under 10 million and 7.49 million were registered to vote in the general election last Sunday. There were 6005 polling stations so each polling station would deal, on average, with less than 1300 voters. As a comparison, an Indian General Election has 814 million voters and 930,000 polling stations giving an average of less than 900 voters per polling station.

On average a Swedish polling station has 50% more voters than an average Indian polling station. Yet the Swedish voting procedure is almost entirely manual with very little use of electronic devices. Surprisingly, it is also prone to human error in the recording of who has voted.

The voting process has five key steps.

  1. Select a ballot paper from the party of your choice (NOT IN SECRET)
  2. Mark your preference for a particular person on the party list. (IN SECRET).
  3. Put your ballot paper in an envelope. (IN SECRET).
  4. Identify yourself to polling official who crosses you off the electoral list and
  5. places your envelope in the ballot box (NOT IN SECRET).

The voters choice of party is made in Step 1 but there is no pretense of secrecy around this step. The secrecy surrounding Step 3 adds no value. In Step 4 there is no cross check that the name being crossed of the electoral roll is actually the person who has voted.

Considering the voting process as a whole, it is remarkably old-fashioned but steps 1 and 4 are not fit for purpose for even an old-fashioned process.

 

This year the Swedish election has had international observers. I would be surprised if they did not comment on Steps 1 and 4.


 

Sweden election 2018: Too many parties spoil the governance

September 9, 2018

We are about to go and vote.

Red/green or Blue or Blue/Brown.

But the simple reality is that Sweden is actually a politically fractured country with 8 significant parties (9 including the Feminist Initiative) who could cross the 4% barrier and get into parliament. There is zero possibility of getting a majority government. Back room deals and the undue influence of minority parties is a foregone conclusion. We have had the undue influence of the Green party in the last Red/Green government. Instead of 2 major parties we will now have 3. The Sweden Democrats is the Joker in the pack.

Whatever transpires we have a politically messy period ahead of us.

There are just too many parties.


 

Election time in Sweden and stupidity is in the air

August 26, 2018

The Swedish general election takes place in about 2 weeks and it is almost impossible to avoid stupid pronouncements by politicians of all colours and all parties.

There is not a single media outlet which does not have its own agenda. Some openly support a particular party. Others are more sophisticated and oppose particular parties. The most intelligent keep their preferences hidden but support or attack particular policies which, on balance and by a strange coincidence, just happen to be those of a particular party. But there is not a single one which does not have its own agenda. But the worst thing is the oozing, sickly sweet stench of political correctness.

Stupidity is in the air.

 


 

And then came counting

August 25, 2018

Origins of human cognitive development go back a lot longer than was once thought. Our first bipedal ancestors who came down from the trees more than 5 million years ago, had  already some concept of “more” and “less” and  perhaps even of rudimentary numbers upto 3 (as rhesus monkeys have today). Genetic analysis of ancient bones is showing that the origin and development of modern humans needs to be taking the Neanderthals and the Denisovans into account and perhaps has to go back at least to the time of a common ancestor from over 1 million years ago. Just considering the last 200,000 years is no longer enough.

I have no doubt that the mastery of fire, the eating of cooked meat, the growth of the brain and, above all, the increased need for cooperation were interconnected and drove human cognitive development. Whether developments happened in one place and spread or happened at many places, perhaps at many times, will always be a matter of speculation. But it is not so difficult to come up with a not implausible time-line of the key developments which gave us first counting and then tallying and arithmetic and geometry and now complex number theory. The oldest evidence we have of counting are tally-sticks from over 50,000 years ago. But counting surely started long before that.


Related:

What led humans to counting and when?

The origins of base 60


 

Going raging into the night

August 23, 2018

My introduction to Dylan Thomas was as a teenager. I heard Richard Burton reading “Do not go gentle into that good night” on radio (though as with all things Burton, “declaiming” would be better than “reading”) in the 1960s. Then I watched Under Milk Wood in the West End and I fell in love with the sound of Dylan Thomas. I read all I could find of his and I read them aloud to myself (irritating my room-mates at my students hostel no end). But it was very much later that I penetrated beyond the mesmerising, chant-like quality of the sound and began to understand the words.

But I observe that my understanding of (or more correctly the meaning I ascribe to) his writings are changing with time. At one time I saw “Do not go gentle ..” as an exhortation and a plea to an old and dying man (his father) to not give up; to keep fighting; to not go quietly. The poetic form used is a villanelle which is a nineteen-line form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The two repeating refrains are both hypnotic and melodic.

But understandings shift and now, that I have passed 70, I read it much more personally. I take this poem as being addressed to me.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Of course Dylan Thomas has to be read aloud and of course he chooses words for the sound as much as for the meaning. What gives me most satisfaction now is that I am still conscious. It is not a rage against dying but it is a rage against the dying of the light. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”.

Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”



 

When the waves of determinism break against the rocks of the unknowable

August 21, 2018

It is physics versus philosophy.

Causal determinism states that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.

Determinism, unlike fatalism, does not require that future events be destined to occur no matter what the past and current events are. It only states that every future event that does occur, is an inevitable consequence of what has gone before and of the natural laws. However inevitability does not mean – and does not need to mean – predictability by the human mind. It should be noted though that the existence of a specific causality does not by itself imply a general determinism extending across all space and all time. A general and absolute determinism is also not a necessary condition for applying the scientific method though it could easily be taken to be so. The scientific method does require determinism but only to the extent that causality applies within the observable range of empirical observations. But it is also therefore unavoidable that the scientific method can only discover causal connections. The scientific method, in itself, rejects the existence of, and is therefore incapable of detecting, non-causal connections.

Most physicists would claim that determinism prevails. (Some of them may concede compatibilism but that is just a subterfuge to allow determinism to coexist with free will). Determinism claims that causality is supreme; that the laws of nature (whether or not they are known to the mind of man) prevail in the universe such that whatever is occurring is caused by, and is a consequence of, what came before. And whatever will happen in the future is caused by what has occurred before and what is occurring now. Absolute determinism allows of no free will. It can not. Clearly determinism allows of no gods or magic either. For determinism to apply it does not require that all knowledge is known or that the natural laws have all been discovered. It does however require that everything is knowable. If the unknowable exists then not everything can be determined. It also requires that all natural laws be self-explanatory in themselves. For the physicist, even the uncertainty at the quantum level does not invalidate determinism because this uncertainty, they say, is not random but is probabilistic. Even the weirdness brought about by quantum loop gravity theories do not, it is thought, invalidate the concept of determinism. Here the laws of nature and time and space themselves are emergent. They emerge from deeper, underlying “laws” and emerge as what we perceive as space and time and the 4 laws of nature. Where those underlying “laws” or rules or random excitations come from, or why, are, however, undefined and – more importantly – undefinable.

The concept that the universe is a zero-sum game, when taking the universe as a whole, does not take us any further. The concept postulates that the universe – taken globally – is a big nothing. Zero energy and zero charge globally but with locally “lumpy” conditions to set off the Big Bang. Some positive energies and some energy consumption such that the total is zero.  I find this unsatisfactory in that the concepts of the universe being homogeneous and isotropic are then a function of scale (space) and of time. Allowing for local lumpiness to exist but which averages to a globally smooth zero, seems far too contrived and convenient.

The problem caused by the acceptance of determinism, and of the consequent denial of the possibility of free will, is that all events are then inevitable and a natural consequence of what happened before. Choice becomes illusory. Behaviour is pre-ordained. In fact all thought and even consciousness itself must be an inevitable consequence of what went before. There can no longer be any moral responsibility attached to any behaviour or any actions (whether by humans or inanimate matter). It is argued that morality is irrelevant for physics. They are different domains. There is no equation for morality because it is not a law of nature. It is merely an emergent thing. Morality, for the physicist, just like consciousness and thought and behaviour, merely emerge from the laws of nature. This is not incorrect in itself, I think, but they are different domains because the laws of nature – as we know them – are incomplete in that they can neither explain themselves or morality.

For the physicist the natural laws apply everywhere and everywhen. Except, they admit, at or before (if there was a before) the Big Bang Singularity. They apply across the universe except that the universe cannot be defined. It is disingenuous to merely claim that the universe expands into nothingness and both creates and defines itself. The natural laws are said to apply across all of time except that time (not to be confused with the passage of time) is not defined. The nature of time is unknown and probably unknowable. What is it that passes? Quantum loop gravity enthusiasts would claim that time is merely a perception and that causality is an illusion. All events throughout space and time, they would say, occur/have occurred simultaneously. We merely connect certain events in our perceptions such that time and causality emerge. But this is no different than invoking magic. It seems to me that the gaping hole in the determinism charter is that there is no reason (known) for the natural laws to exist. Above all, the natural laws cannot explain themselves. I would claim that this lies in the unknowable. Determinism would have us accept that all biological and neural (and therefore cognitive) processes are merely events that are caused by antecedent events and natural law. Except that while natural laws are observed and experienced empirically, they cannot (and probably never will be able to) explain themselves.

And this is where determinism crashes. The four natural laws (gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force) that we treat as being fundamental are not self-explanatory. They just are. They do not within themselves explain why they must exist. Maybe there is a Theory of Everything capable of explaining itself and everything in the world. Or maybe there isn’t. The natural laws cannot explain why there are 4 fundamental laws and not 5 or 6, or why there are just 12 (or 57) fundamental particles, or why there is a particle/wave duality or why undetectable dark energy or dark matter exist (except as fudge factors).The natural laws, as we know them today, cannot explain why life began (or why life had to begin to satisfy determinism), cannot explain what consciousness is and cannot explain why thoughts and behaviour must be inevitable consequences of antecedent events.  As a practical matter we have no inkling as to which antecedent events cause which cognitive events and following which laws. It is very likely that this is theoretically impossible as well. Some of these explanations may well lie in the realm of the unknowable. I draw the analogy with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems:

The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure (i.e., an algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the arithmetic of the natural numbers. For any such formal system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system.

The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that the system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.

We cannot from within and as part of the universe demonstrate why the axioms used by physics must be. Empiricism gives us what we perceive to be the laws of nature. Empiricism also gives us our perceptions of consciousness and thought and free will. And these contradict one another. The resolution of the contradictions lives in the unknowable.

Empiricism can only go so far. It cannot reach the parts that empiricism cannot reach. Determinism cannot extend to places where the natural laws cannot or do not reach. If the unknowable exists then determinism cannot reach there. For the natural laws may not (or can not) apply there. It is not about whether we know all there is to be known about natural law. Determinism requires that some consistent and self-explanatory natural laws apply everywhere and at all times.

Absolute Determinism requires that Natural Laws be complete. That requires that natural laws be able to:

  1. explain their own existence, and
  2. explain all events (material and immaterial), and
  3. apply within and beyond our perception of the universe, and
  4. apply within and beyond our perception of time,

And the existence of such a set of Natural Laws is unknowable.


 

Related:

https://ktwop.com/2017/07/22/known-unknown-and-unknowable/

https://ktwop.com/2017/09/22/the-unknowable-is-neither-true-nor-false/

https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/plain-talk-about-free-will-from-a-physicist-stop-claiming-you-have-it/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Determinism

http://physicsandthemind.blogspot.com/2013/10/in-defense-of-libertarian-free-will.html

http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2016/01/free-will-is-dead-lets-bury-it.html?spref=tw

http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2011/06/the_big_nothing.html

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/


 

As a second class immigrant, who should I vote for in the Swedish election?

August 18, 2018

I have observed that in a Red/Green Sweden I am now a second class immigrant. I did not ask for or get “political asylum”. I came to Sweden – horror of horrors – to work. I did not seek, and I did not get, social welfare payments.

I am of Indian origin and I was working in England in R & D when I was “recruited” to Sweden 34 years ago. At that time it was still the old Stal Laval which became ASEA Stal and then ABB Stal and then later Alstom and then Siemens. In due course we became Swedish citizens.

Now as we approach the 2018 general election I must decide who to vote for this time. There are actually many parties not worthy of consideration. The Environmental Party is made up of children trying to be adults. They are so sanctimonious they make me ill. The Left party is just another Communist party masquerading as socialists. The Liberals and the Centre and the Christian Democrat parties have no idea what they really stand for and are “dead men walking”.  The Greens, the Left, the Liberals, the Christian Democrats and the Centre are excluded from any further consideration. That leaves three.

  1. For the Social Democrats, I am a second class immigrant because I came to Sweden to work and not for “political asylum”. Moreover they have not understood the difference between multi-ethnic and multicultural. Parallel cultures always give a fractured society. They want to tax me even more for very questionable projects. They have confused sameness with equality. They have made a false God of “equality” without understanding that fairness and justice demands unequal treatment. I find Stefan Löfven uninspiring. They may well win the election but they are probably not for me.
  2. The Sweden Democrats would prefer that I am not here. Jimmy Åkesson has actually developed more over the last 10 years than any of the other political “leaders”. He has more charisma than any of the others. On many issues, except the treatment of immigrants, I am actually closer to the Sweden Democrats than to many of the other parties. But they don’t like any immigrants of any kind and therefore I am not for them.
  3. The Moderate Party should be where I can naturally find a home. Generally, but mainly in theory, they are closer to my views on labour and the economy and free enterprise. But they lack courage and they lack leadership. They are so enslaved by political correctness that they are prepared to go against their own principles whenever the wind blows against them. Ulf Kristersson is solid enough but quite bland. He could grow up but he hasn’t done so yet.

I don’t have any good choices – only less bad ones.  I think the Social Democrats are unlikely to get my vote for just being too unintelligent. The Moderate party is possible as being the best of a poor lot but it could be a wasted vote. Or I could vote for the Sweden Democrats in the hope that an earthquake will result and that out of chaos can come order.

 


 

Either flies have communication or they have reincarnation

August 9, 2018

Over the last few weeks with temperatures above 25ºC our windows have been open more than usual. The influx of house flies has been correspondingly high. It has not quite been an inundation but we have fly-swats in most rooms.

On average over the last few weeks I have probably swatted 20 flies per day (more than 15, less than 30). In my defense I have not been on an extermination splurge and have only swatted a fly when it has been particularly irritating.

The flies are in no danger of extermination as a species and biodiversity is not threatened.

My empirical observations are as follows:

  1. Once a fly has found warm skin to prey upon, it has some mechanism to “lock on” to its target.
  2. A fly can read my mind and knows when I am thinking about picking up the fly swat.
  3. Once a fly has identified me as a target, other flies stay away from its hunting territory.
  4. Even flies need to rest and frantic twitching and waving of limbs does lead them to fly away from the target occasionally and rest on nearby surfaces.
  5. A light swat merely stuns the fly and it quickly recovers to continue its murderous attacks.
  6. A heavy swat mashes the fly leaving a gooey mess.
  7. With skill and practice just the right level of swat force can be applied to kill the fly without creating a mess.
  8. Within about 2 minutes of my swatting a fly dead, another fly appears and acquires me as a target.
  9. The “hero” or “rescue fly” is always singular and never a swarm of flies.
  10. Another swatting leads to another hero fly appearing.
  11. The longest sequence of dead fly/ hero fly observed has been six.

These observations lead me to the following conclusions:

  1. Flies have an unknown mechanism (probably an infra-red sensor) by which they can identify and lock on to prey.
  2. Flies are somewhat territorial and can communicate their reserved territories to other flies.
  3. Flies emit some kind of death radiation which is picked up by other flies but just a single “hero” or “rescue fly” is then sent to seek retribution.
  4. Flies do not have a collective memory since hero flies only appear singly and continue appearing even if each gets successively swatted.

Or, flies are reincarnated. Empirical observation suggests that if this the case, the reincarnations are not endless and number less than the eight reincarnations and nine lives of cats. It would seem that they have more than two reincarnations but less than five.


 

The oldest language in the world

August 8, 2018

Even those with supposedly the very “best breeding” in the world have derived from just as many ancestors and ancestral generations as the most wretched person alive today. Every single one of the 7 billion humans alive today has an unbroken line of descent from any time in the past. (Not forgetting that your dog is a product of around seven times more generations than you are). In terms of evolution every single human is just as much evolved (or devolved) as any other.

But so must it be with our languages as well. Every single language used today must have an unbroken connection backwards into the past. Assuming that the first proto-language, if there was only one, or the many original proto-languages, developed at around the same time, every language used today has as long a genealogy as every other. Some languages have no doubt become extinct, but every surviving language must have an unbroken connection back into the mist of the origin of language.

About half the world’s population speak languages which derive from Proto-Indo-European (PIE). PIE probably came into being around 10 – 15,000 years ago. But there would have been languages before that and possibly some simple speech was already established some 100,000 years ago or even earlier. One plausible family tree, proposed by Allan Bomhard in 2008, is of the Nostratic macrofamily. (Nostratic is still considered quite speculative but if it wasn’t Nostratic then it is only a question of what it was — for something there certainly must have been).

The evolution of language would have been a braided stream. Putting a time-line onto this evolution of language is purely speculative. Nevertheless, any speculation is perfectly valid as a possibility unless there is some evidence to exclude it. The origins of PIE seem to be linked to either the spread of humans with access to horses or to the neolithic spread of agriculture or possibly to both. Either way it would be dated to 10,000 – 15,000 years ago. The geographical location is also speculative. It could have been from the steppes of central Asia (the equine theory) or from the Golden Crescent (agriculture).

But PIE derives from Eurasiatic, and it probably displaced a Proto-Dravidian ancestor already being used in the Indus Valley and across the subcontinent. The generation prior to PIE (Afro-Asiatic, Kartvelian, Dravidian and Eurasiatic) could then occupy the period from 15,000 to about 25,000 years ago. It is probably with this generation of language that rudimentary written language first developed. Which, I speculate, would take Nostratic to the period from 25,000 to 35,000 years ago. But the story does not start or end with Nostratic. There was language – and languages – long before that. However, Nostratic and its siblings and all previous generations of language would have been entirely spoken (including whistling and clicks as part of the spoken tradition).

 

Every human has origins which go as far back into the past as any other. And so it is with language.

The oldest language in the world, the language with its origins in the most distant past, is the language you are speaking now.


 


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