Friday, 30 January 2009

End of Faith

Having recently finished reading Sam Harris's The End of Faith, I thought that I would make a few remarks on some of what I found interesting. Now this is not going to be a review or in any way a comprehensive look at the book or its subject - well accept to say a lot of it especially the earlier chapters make a whole lot of sense. I do agree that the idea of faith itself (and hence most religious beliefs) do by there very nature promote the sorts of actions of terror we have seen unfortunately all too often.

Religion does not however have a monopoly on terrorism, it seems to arise any where that one group oppresses another, or struggles to have its voice heard (hence all the fuss about President Obama's links to terrorist, stemming from the violent side of the anti-Vietnam war movement.) Though that is not to say that Harris's thesis is incorrect, as any where religion is involved you do find the in-group/out-group behaviors emerging usually along with an easy rationale for hatred of, and justification of violence towards members of out-groups (To be fair to Harris he probably does mention this and I just don't remember it). And I certainly can't think of any in-group/out-group situation religion has made better.

One of the more stand out quotes from the book must actually go to Christopher Hitchens, and it is a quote of his that I hadn't heard before (and will have to put on my notable quotes over on the side bar) but sums up a lot of my positions, not only on religion but about skepticism in general:

What Can Be Asserted Without Evidence Can Be Dismissed Without Evidence.

Much of the second half of the book is about morals and ethics. One of the main factors of this section was a counter to what I have seen as a large claim by theists against atheist, that with out a god to direct us, carrot (heaven) and stick (hell), we are left to create our own morals and therefore everything is relative. Unlike the genetic advantage of altruism approach favoured by Richard Dawkins, Harris has decided instead to just blow relativism out of the water.

Essentially he makes the argument that relativism, or the idea that all worldviews are equally valid, means then that a worldview that some positions are true and others false must be valid, of course the consequence of that is that all worldviews cannot be valid.

Ok I am paraphrasing a bit but the idea behind it is that relativism is self contradictory, and as I stated above if all possible worldviews are equally valid then the worldview that there is an object reality which can confirm or falsify any position must also be valid, since it is by definition a subset of all the possible worldviews. However an objective reality which can falsify a worldview means that all worldviews cannot be equally valid and therefore relativism contradicts itself and cannot be correct. This all means that indeed there must be some method we can use to confirm or falsify our worldviews, which essentially means that there is an objective reality and when it comes to morals/ethics there must exist definite rights and wrongs.

The book finishes with a discussion about the need for spirituality, and I have heard many comments about how Harris sees this in a sense that is too religious and that it is a bit of a "sacred cow" for him. Harris does approach spirituality from an "eastern mystic" viewpoint and I think that is what leads to the issues that some people have. My view on this is one that spirituality, and a sense of awe that seems to go with it, is something that as humans we seem to be programmed for, and there is no reason one cannot find that internally as Harris suggests although I have my doubts that anything that comes from introspection and meditation must automatically relate to the world around us.

I find that nature and the universe itself is a great source of the sense of wonder and awe that many people turn to religion to find and perhaps if some of Hubble's (the Hubble space telescope) images were put into the mainstream media others may get a chance to see just how amazing the universe really is.

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Monday, 26 January 2009

Government Funded Woo

Here in New Zealand the ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation), which is the government funded accident compensation scheme providing 24-hour no-fault personal injury insurance cover (and yes I lifted that description off their webpage), has for a while now been funding certain "complimentary and alternative" treatments such as chiropractic, acupuncture and osteopathy.

However in The Press on Friday, we hear that the new Minister for ACC (who has been on the job for almost 6 weeks now despite our election happening after that of the US) will be reviewing this policy:

Spiralling public spending on complementary medicine will be reviewed amid concerns about the treatments, ACC Minister Nick Smith says.

The ACC spent $37 million on complementary and alternative medicine (Cam) in the 2007-2008 year up from $18.4 million in 2003-2004.

Smith said Cam expenditure had been growing significantly faster than other parts of accident compensation.

There were "legitimate questions" about the effectiveness of some alternative treatments, and the issue would be looked at as part of a broader ACC review, he said.

This was brought to my attention over the weekend via the NZ Skeptics group, along with the suggestion that we email the minister and show our support for this (and I suggest that any NZ readers here do the same, my email will be reprinted below the fold). I think this is certainly a cause for hope that reality may be setting in here, and at least some in the new government will be on our side, for example Dr Smith who is the ACC minister is also the Minister for Climate Change.

Dear Dr Smith

I wanted to thank you for initiating an investigation into the ACC funding of "CAM" treatments, many of which have been shown to have no medical validity.

I think that you should follow the position of the MoH, in that only those treatments which are shown to be effective should be funded.

Any treatment modality which can be shown to be effective under the standards used to judge modern medicine, is neither complimentary or alternative, it would simply be medicine, and as such your funding model should reflect this.

I feel that this investigation is a good thing for the country and I wish you all the best for it. A good resource to help sift the wheat from the chaff would be the excellent website

Thank you for your time

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Friday, 16 January 2009

The Compassionate Thing To Do

I have recently (Monday) had to deal with the loss of my parents dog (a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel). She has been getting progressively worse over the last month or so, and it looked like her kidneys were failing, so my parents faced the hard choice of what to do. As she was fairly old they in the end did the compassionate thing and had her put down.

It is really hard to have to let someone (and yes I consider a dog a someone) go, especially someone who was close to you and special, it leaves a hole inside you, and this is the second time in a few months that I have had to deal with this, with my father-in-law passing away from cancer in November. At the very least I can say that neither of them are suffering anymore. The long drawn out stages where the illness is taking over and body is on the decline is so hard to watch and must be hard to endure too.

What I find interesting is that although both were clearly suffering, the right thing to do for the dog is to have her put down, where as if one was to euthanize a person you would essentially be facing murder charges. Do we humans not get to die with dignity, where is the compassion in letting a terminally ill person suffer through the debilitating last stages of cancer (or any other disease)?

I will however point out that my father-in-law fought to stay alive for a long time after he was no longer able to be fed, in fact this in itself made things worse for the family (especially my wife who is the only girl among 4 brothers).

What I want to finish on is that if I was in that situation (which I hope to hold off for as long as I can, after all I am still planning on doing a lot of living), my body failing and the end near, I would like to go the way of the dog, with dignity and not suffering to the bitter end. I would like some one to show me the same compassion as my parents did to their dog. Not only that I would like someone to be allowed to show me that compassion.

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Welcome to the year

Well everyone welcome (belatedly) to 2009. I have been busy over the last couple of weeks, helping with our Summer School Astronomy course, it is quite fun to teach and we get a real mix of students (it is maths-lite and we have tried to market it arts students and the such). It does keep me very busy and while I am trying to be more active on the blog at the moment it may have to wait until after next weeks optics lab (the only real experimental science lab that we get them to do).

Still I will direct you to the first skeptics circle of the year for some good reading and if that is not enough you can check out the Carnival of the Godless from late last year that featured my Good for Goodness Sake post.

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