Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Because science *is* for people …


One of the great tragedies of modern society is the general perception of science as boring, difficult, and not relevant to everyday life. To me, science has always been the best amplifier of wonder that humans have come up with.

Wonder pours in through the senses from a very early age. But, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, people seem to think that teaching kids about science means getting them to memorize facts. No. Science is about questioning, about looking fearlessly and with delight at how the world works, in all its crazy, messy complexity.

Science doesn’t answer all of our important social questions, but it does inform them. It helps us think about them more clearly.

Anyway, this post isn’t meant to be cheerleading for science. It’s meant to be cheerleading for a podcast I’ve been listening to. Until recently, it was called “Skeptically Speaking” – a perfectly reasonable name, that captured some of the spirit of the thing. (My only quibble with the name was that I’d occasionally confuse it with Rationally Speaking, another excellent podcast with a very different focus and flavour.) I enjoyed the podcast. Then I learned that it was produced out of my new home city, Edmonton, and I enjoyed it a little more. I even got to see two of the hosts, Desiree Schell (@desireeschell) and Rachelle Saunders (@afterthree), at this year’s Logicon.

What’s so great about this podcast? Well, it’s produced and hosted by science fans with great production and communication skills.

And that’s delightful to see in a science podcast.

They take a skeptical look – balancing reports where there is a legitimate scientific debate, and not giving airtime to fringe, unscientific positions.

And that’s refreshing to see in a science reporting by non-scientists.

And … well … they’re fun. Friendly. They seem to get science in the same way I do. They get that it’s hard work to do it right, and that it’s worth the work because we get to learn stuff. We get to see the world with new eyes. And along the way, we may learn things that help us better navigate this crazy, tangled, confusing life of ours.

Anyway, that’s the show. But it isn’t called Skeptically Speaking any longer. Now it’s called …

(drum roll)

Science for the People

They have a snazzy new website, and two episodes now under their new name – one exploring the reason for the name change (and some inspiring science-communication, public-engagement stuff), and one on food sustainability. Here’s a bit of what they say about themselves on the website:

“We explore the connections between science, popular culture, history, and public policy, to help listeners understand the evidence and arguments behind what’s in the news and on the shelves.”

Go. Listen. Enjoy. Wonder.

Definition: free will


I was listening to a skeptical podcast – the Legion of Reason (, out of Calgary – and the topic of free will reared itself. It’s a fascinating topic, because (as in this case) many people who agree with me about atheism, humanism, and loads of related social positions disagree very firmly about the appropriate attitude to free will.

I would like to clarify and expand on what I have said recently on this blog about free will. First, though, I thought I would start by exploring the definition.

Like my previous definition posts, I will present how I see it free will, and point out some of the ways that people differ.

First, note that the term “free will” is made of two words. So let’s start with a simple definition:

Free will is the unconstrained (free) exercise of one’s intention to act (will).

No problem so far. But what counts as a constraint?*

This is where people differ. For me, unconstrained means that, when I have a desire to act (whatever the reason for or source of that desire), I am able to follow through.

When I want to stand up, I can. I am not tied down; I am not too weak.

When I want to go bungee-jumping, I can. I do not have a subconscious aversion preventing me from taking that last step; I do not have overly-protective parents hiding my keys to keep me from driving to the jump site.

Constraints can take the form of physical bonds, financial shortfalls, or even irresistable psychological compulsions (addiction is an interesting area for examining edge-cases in free will).

Other people – the “libertarian free will” crowd – consider that any reliable causal predictor of a decision is an intolerable constraint, undermining freedom of will. The most popular expression of this is the claim that determinism undermines free will. That is, if the universe really does operate according to immutable, universal laws of cause-and-effect that completely determine the behaviour of everything in the universe, then everything we do is physically “constrained” to a single possibility (whether or not we can ever know that possibility in advance).

I find this position odd for two reasons: the “chain-link” and the “character”.

First, even if my actions are determined in advance, it may still be the case that my intentions (part of the physical universe) are the proximate cause of my actions: I stood up because I wanted to stand up. Sure, I may have wanted to stand up because my bladder was full, which was because of all the tomato juice I had consumed earlier, which was because of that unfortunate incident with the skunk, and so on and so on to the beginning of our clockwork universe. But the immediate reason I stood up was because I chose to. It was an exercise of my will. My will is a crucial link in the great causal chain that led to the event. To me, the idea of freedom is how that link that is my intention relates to the link that is the outcome, not how it relates to all the other links.

Second, it baffles me that mere predictability is considered a defeater for free will. Just because someone can guess what I’m going to do does not make me less free. If my child cries out in pain, I run to help them. That behaviour is predictable. In fact, part of being a good parent is letting my children know deep down that I will react that way. Does that mean I am not exercising my free will when I choose to help them? Of course not. Is my obedience to traffic laws a subjugation of my free will? No, it’s an expression of it. I try to cultivate a character that leads me to behave well. This entails being predictable in a wide range of situations.

I know that there is some psychological monitor inside all of us that doesn’t like the idea of any constraint – real, practical, or metaphysical – on our behaviour. When I hear libertarian free-will advocates declaiming, I often have to step back before I see again why their arguments fall flat. But it bugs me that so few people seem to see that the aspects of freedom which are important to them in daily life do not depend on libertarian free will. It bugs me that they never seem to see the conflict between virtue – the development of a character that consistently chooses to follow predictable patterns of virtuous behaviour – and this idea of completely acausal decision-making. I think my approach above not only captures my own aesthetic preferences regarding the definitions of free will, but also the way we tend to apply the concept to our real lives. We are not worried about whether some unknowable causal chain irrevocably caused us to want to do what we did, but rather whether we were able to do what we intended.

I think the above works, regardless of whether one sees the “will” as part of the physical world (materialism) or existing in some separate realm (dualism). I also think it is essentially independent of the question of whether a god exists or not.

Though I’ve looked at free will in this way for several years, I don’t know if I’ve ever articulated this particular position. So I would like to know if you can see any obvious holes in the compatibilist position I am promoting here. Do you? If so, please let me know!

On the other hand, are there any other compatibilists out there who agree with my position? Or libertarians who find the above arguments thought-provoking?

Any theists or folks familiar with theological approaches to free will? What do you think? My impression is that most theists are libertarians, but I have heard that Calvinists and perhaps some others are determinists, and so may have some sort of compatibilist approach to free will. Or they may just deny that we have free will.


* I may address what is meant by “intention to act” at a later date, or in the comments if people want to bring it up. For now, I’ll just assume it’s fairly obvious.

On Blogging, Tweeting, and Denting


This blog is not dead.

I enjoy writing here, and I intend to continue writing here.

However, I find that I have little time to produce the full-length examinations of news and issues that I would like. I will do so from time to time, but for the foreseeable future it will be infrequent.

I have discovered this new form of online communication: microblogging. Okay, I understand it’s been around for a while, but it’s new to me, okay? Who knew that so many people wanted to communicate their thoughts but not spend much time composing articulate and complete essays around each thought?

Hmm … am I descending into lowest-common-denomitor communication? Or simply expanding my pool of communicative strategies? No time to worry about that now – this post is already wearisomely long. ;)

So, if you really want to keep track of what I’m thinking of, feel free to follow me on Twitter (friendlyhumanis) or (timothymills). I try to put the same posts on each, but have not yet worked out all the kinks.

Anyone with advice about etiquette or other aspects of microblogging activity, please let me know in the comments. Did I mention I’m new to this?

Also, let me know if you’re on either network yourself. I can friend you. Or is it “follow”? Stalk? Accompany? Join? Associate? Link? Whatever the term is, I’m happy to connect.

See you around the Internet.

Happy Southern Solstice!


For everyone more than 23.4 degrees south of the equator, happy longest day of the year!  For everyone more than 23.4 degrees north of the equator, happy shortest day of the year!  For everyone else … hmm, you know, I’ve never actually learned how the seasons work in that zone of maximum insolation around our planet’s belly.  Well, maybe you can enjoy the fact that you don’t have several inches of snow (as we do here in Boston).  Or the fact that you actually have days of relatively constant length.

Anyway, have a great solstice everyone – the cause of the season.

Also, don’t forget to celebrate Newton’s birthday on Saturday.  Reason in the season.

(I’m not blogging the Cosmic Advent this year, but you are free to follow it yourself on my Google Cosmic Calendar.)

Getting friendly with Friends


I’m sure all of you humanists out there are members by now of the Foundation Beyond Belief – the umbrella charity designed to “focus, encourage, and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists in the interest of a better world.” And I’m sure you all know that the FBB is set up so that each quarter, a new slate of charities is chosen in different categories, such as Peace, Education, and Animal Protection.

And of course, who could forget that members are able to divvy up their contributions in any way they want – all to one charity, evenly between the ten, or any other way. And they can do it differently for every new slate of charities. And all their money goes to the named charities. (One of the charities each quarter is the FBB itself, in case you’re wondering how it funds its operations.)

Two quarters have come and passed, and seen donations of $35000. The third set of charities has been chosen, and one of them has become the focus of a (so far tiny) controversy.

You see, it’s a religious organization: Quaker Peace and Social Witness.

So far, I’ve only seen five discussions of it – at Daylight Atheism, No Forbidden Questions, the FBB’s own blog, Atheist Revolution, and the Meming of Life (by Dale McGowan, brainfather of FBB). So, to the extent that it is a controversy, it’s a fairly limited one.

The objections come in different flavours: that this amounts to promoting religion, that it (perhaps covertly) undermines humanist principles, even that it may be the start of a slippery slope (toward what is not made clear).

Now, I quite like the idea of reaching out like this. The liberal Quakers have a long and proud history of pacifism, so I think they have earned some credentials in the promotion of peace. And they are not proselytizing (that’s a prerequisite for consideration by the FBB). In all, they seem to demonstrate quite well the positive humanist values that the FBB and its members stand for, without slipping in any contradictory religious dogma. So it would be very easy for me to snark back at these naysayers.

I might facetiously agree, “That’s right: what could humanists and Quakers possibly have in common?”

And then, tongue still in cheek, add a few caveats. “You know, besides an aversion to unnecessary violence. And a love of religious liberty. And strong support for women’s equality, gay rights, and civil action. And, a distrust of religious authority – in the form of hierarchies, or simply of ‘sacred’ books. And, you know, a significant number of nontheists in their ranks.”

But, on reflection, I think such snarkiness might be counterproductive.

On the other hand, I could try to respond to every little point made by the detractors. But, aside from being exhausting and uninteresting to read, I think that would miss the point too.

The fact is that, depending on what you feel is most important about your humanism/atheism/[insert nontheistic label of preference], there actually can be different right answers here. Is a lack of religious belief more important to you than a lack of overt proselytizing? Then you may want to avoid donating to Quakers. Do you find pacifists to be too idealistic for your taste? Then you might want to avoid the FBB’s Peace category altogether, and definitely stay away from Quakers.

On the other hand, maybe you feel that a person’s actions are far more important than their beliefs. Maybe you really value peace, and would like to support an organization with a track record of effective promotion of peace. Or maybe you want to support those religious believers who don’t step on our freedom to disbelieve, who don’t try to push their beliefs into our laws, into our homes, into our bedrooms. Who actually understand that true religious freedom necessarily includes the freedom to withhold belief. In that case, this may be a charity worth donating to.

Now, it seems to me that the positions on both sides are both perfectly legitimate expressions of nontheistic worldviews. And, as an organization that wants to represent and empower all of us, the Foundation Beyond Belief really ought to be giving us all the opportunity to express our charitable values. I think that, by occasionally including charities like Quaker Peace and Social Witness, while always giving clear information to members and making it easy to opt out of any one (or two or more) charities in a given quarter, they are living up to their stated aims.

At any rate, I’m not overly worried. Some ideologues in the discussions have vowed to stay away from FBB. But most people seem willing to simply include or exclude the Quaker charity according to their own conscience, and let others do the same.

I hope that we as a community can continue to take this high road – neither compromising our values nor schisming along unnecessary fracture lines. We shall see.

Dana McCaffery’s birthday


Today would have been Dana’s first birthday.

Unfortunately, she died when she was four weeks old of pertussis (whooping cough), a vaccine-preventable disease.  Dana was too young to be vaccinated, but it is likely that she would never have caught it if older children in her area had been adequately vaccinated.

She is dead because some people put unfounded fears above real medicine.

Vaccines work.  Without vaccines, children die.  Don’t put your children at risk.  Don’t put other people’s children at risk.  Don’t put my children at risk.  For goodness’ sake, vaccinate.

(Thanks to Phil Plait for the reminder.)

Why Polyamory is wrong


Via Hemant, the Friendly Atheist:

Tee hee.  Linguist humour.

If the image doesn’t load for you, it’s a t-shirt with the following text:

Polyamory is wrong!

It is either multiamory

or polyphilia

but mixing Greek and

Latin roots?  Wrong!

And, if you still don’t get it, don’t feel ashamed.  Ask Wikipedia.

When is Milky Way Day?


I have recently learned that Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar idea, which I have talked about before, may be gaining traction in the minds of some humanists, so I’ll make a concerted effort to mark the key cosmic events through the year. If I miss one, please let me know.

I previously placed the Milky Way’s formation at the first of May – a nice confluence with other holiday traditions. But, since the Cosmic Calendar is based on empirical knowledge, I would like to use this post to acknowledge that both of the numbers that feed into the calculation of which day is “Milky Way Day” were problematic, and to consider the implications for our holiday.

The first inaccurate number was the age of the universe: my first calculation was based on an age of 15 billion years (a nice round number that I picked up from I-don’t-know-where). In fact, best estimates put the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago.* That changes the scale of everything (from about 41 million years per calendar day to about 37.5 million).

Second, it is difficult to put a particular date to the origin of the Milky Way. Is it the date when its oldest star formed (possibly about 13.6 billion years ago – the afternoon of January 3rd)? It seems more reasonable to look for the achievement of something like its current disk-like structure – something that Wikipedia tells us occurred somewhere between 10.1 and 6.5 billion years ago. (I don’t know if that means it took that long, or if astronomers simply can’t pinpoint the time more precisely than that.)

That gives us a range from April 6 to July 11. Now, I’d be all for a 3-month-long humanist festival celebrating our local stellar metropolis … but some people might think this impractical.

So I’m going to stick with May 1 for the time being. It’s well within the range of dates (it corresponds to a cosmic date 9.1 billion years ago). Remember, the whole idea of using the Cosmic Calendar is to raise our awareness of the scale of cosmic history. We don’t have to be dead on. (But feel free to celebrate Milky Way Day at any date in the range that suits you. There’s nothing sacred about May 1.)

So, happy Milky Way Day!

What will you be doing to commemorate this momentous event? Will you try your hand at a star-formation game? Will you look for spiral shapes in your environment? Or will you just spend some time outside tonight, gazing at that pale band of light across the sky?

* Observant readers will note that I often just reference Wikipedia in my fact-supporting links. I do research beyond Wikipedia, but in an effort to avoid link soup, I limit the number of links I provide. If there is relevant information elsewhere, I will link to it. If Wikipedia seems to be weak on a particular topic, I will look elsewhere. Otherwise, it’s a reliable standby.

Image credits:
Opening image of Milky Way by R. Hurt. Obtained via Astronomy Picture of the Day. Believed to be public domain.

Image of Hera nursing Heracles (Greek myth on the formation of the Milky Way) by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594), via this page. Public domain.

Nautilus shell from Wikipedia, copyright user Mgiganteus1, distributed under GNU Free documentation License.

Sunflower from Wikipedia, copyright L. Shyamal, distributed under the CC Attribution Share-alike License 2.5.

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.

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?


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