Archive for 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.

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?

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.)

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.)

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”.] [Edit 2010 November 30:  Ubuntu ME is now called “Sabily”, and can be found here.]

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.

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?