Archive for March, 2009

Bertrand Russell on same-sex marriage?


From Bertrand Russell’s essay “On the value of scepticism” in the collection Sceptical Essays (first published 1928):

The bulk of the population of every country is persuaded that all marriage customs other than its own are immoral, and that those who combat this view only do so in order to justify their own loose lives.

Does this remind you of some contemporary issue? It sure strikes me as familiar.

The choice is yours


Here is my latest article in Humanitie. This time, Mike and I squared off on the topic of free will – be sure to read his column as well.

What is free will, and how does it fit into a naturalistic worldview?

Philosophical materialism (common among humanists) is sometimes attacked on the grounds that it precludes the possibility of free will. Here’s how:

Classical Newtonian physics describes a material world operating according to fixed and immutable laws of cause and effect. Under this picture, our actions are fundamentally predetermined: we can only act one way in any particular situation. Scratch free will.

Quantum physics rescues us from this clockwork universe, but only by injecting randomness into the equation. Randomness is not really free will either, so this escape from determinism does nothing to restore free will.

While they are interesting, I don’t really think that either of these observations – the deterministic behaviours apparent on the large scale, or the quarky randomness that emerges at the quantum level – does any violence to the idea of free will.

The key thing about free will is not what it looks like from the atom’s perspective, nor from the galaxy’s perspective. The key thing is what it looks like from your perspective. It’s probably true that your mind is just the sum of the neural activity of your brain cells; and their actions are in turn the sum of the electrical and chemical events happening at a molecular level; and so on down to quarks and leptons and whatnot.

That’s interesting. Fascinating, in fact.

But for the question of free will, so what? Free will, as it bears on your actual life, is about being able to put your choices into action. Whatever you think lies behind this “me” – be it atoms and photons or soul and immaterial will – it is still meaningful to talk about “me”: what “I” wish, and what “I” do.

As a humanist, I value human life because of properties it has at the human level: consciousness, the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, self-improvement and a desire to understand things. Their value lies not in where they come from, or why they are here, but simply that they are here.

So it is with free will. Its value does not depend on some theory about why we have it; it is valuable because of what it is on the human level. Newtonian clockwork determinism or quantum multiverse randomness are fine for philosophers and physicists. But for me, here and now, there are far more important questions about free will. Do all people have the political freedom to exercise free will? What does a physical addiction mean for free will?

I know it might sound like I’m just defining away the problem of free will. That’s philosophy for you. Sometimes it’s not a matter of subtle, esoteric reasoning; sometimes it’s a matter of identifying the right definition. The right question.

So ask yourself: when it comes to free will, what is important to you – quarks and galaxies or human intentions?

Invisible writer turns 200.


This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of someone whose writing system has helped millions of people … but none of them have seen it.

Louis was born on the 4th of January, 1809. He was a gifted child, learning to play the cello and the organ at a young age.

Between the ages of 12 and 15, he invented a revolutionary new writing system. Loosely based on a clever “night-writing” code he learned from a soldier who visited his special school in Paris, the writing system won official recognition in 1854, two years after his death. Today it is widely recognized (though not widely studied) and bears Louis’s surname, Braille.

In honour of Louis, I’m leaving images out of this entry. Just on the off chance that a blind person reads this post with a Braille reader. Check out the Wikipedia entries on Louis and his alphabet for plenty of images.

And why not send a card to someone you know using his alphabet?

Happy 200, Louis!

Atheist Pride Day


I am an atheist, and I am proud of it.

It’s true, that I prefer to style myself a humanist than an atheist, because I feel it better reflects the positive outlook that lies at the centre of my life. I’ve even resisted simply using the scarlet A of the Out Campaign.  Also check out the video here.

Hemant, the Friendly Atheist, blogged the other day pointing out that tomorrow (20 March) is Atheist Pride Day. It’s being organized around the theme of the Out Campaign, and atheists are encouraged to change their Facebook or other online profile pictures to the scarlet A for the day to show solidarity and encourage other atheists to come out.

Of course, I am already out. But sometimes it pays to remind people. I am an atheist – I do not have a belief in a god. This position, as part of a wider humanist outlook, guides my daily choices, both profound and casual.

I am proud of it, because it is a worldview I have come to through a great deal of questioning and thinking.

I am proud of it because this vein of human thought has a long and noble history, from Socrates through the Enlightenment to modern secular societies.

I am proud of it because my atheism, and the humanism which it is a part of, represent my best self – the best things I do, and the things I strive for but sometimes (often) fail to do, are informed, motivated, and inspired by atheism and humanism.

This is not about sticking it to all those people out there – many of them friends of mine – who are not atheists. It is not about building a wall to divide us from them. It is about asserting that these beliefs of ours are okay. It is about showing everyone – ourselves, theists, and everyone else – that there are many of us out here. It is about showing people that, whatever else it means to be an atheist, it doesn’t mean that you are alone, or foolish, or bad.

If you are an out atheist, please participate in Atheist Pride Day tomorrow. If you think you might be an atheist, or know you are but feel alone, have a look around at the various Out Campaign participants (a Google search for Atheist Out Campaign should give you plenty). How many scarlet As are there in your Facebook friends list?

Even if you are a firm theist, perhaps you could spend some time tomorrow trying to think how the world looks from an atheist’s standpoint? How do you, or your religious leaders, talk about atheists? How do the culture of your area or the laws of your nation treat atheists? How have they treated them in the past? Do your scriptures mention atheists? If so, how are they portrayed? Is it consistent with the atheists you know personally?

I am an atheist, and I am proud of it. And I would be delighted to talk more about it with you in the comments. Do you want to discuss the merits (and possible drawbacks) of an Atheist Pride Day? Come on in!

Learning from religion


Over at This Humanist, Clare has just shared some thoughts on what religious communities do better (at the moment) than humanist communities.

Clare’s general approach to humanism and to religion is pretty close to my own, and I agree with her here too. Among the other things in the post, she says, “Religious life creates community.”

It’s true that community can come from non-religious life too. There’s a little community hall near the farm I grew up on – it used to be a schoolhouse – and I remember gathering there every year with several dozen neighbours to celebrate Halloween and Christmas. (I know, Christmas is nominally a religious holiday – but at least for me in that community, it was not about religion but about the celebration.)

But it’s also true in my experience that, as an organized worldview, humanism does not do community as well as religions do. My guess is that it’s down to experience: we haven’t been organized as long as they have, and haven’t worked out all the details needed to build a vibrant and nurturing community for all our members.

And so, like Clare, I think it would be sensible of us to see how our human neighbours have solved the problems we still grapple with.

Hume on philosophy


I’ve started reading An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. I’d like to share a passage that particularly appealed to me.

It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

(Remembering, of course, that in Hume’s time all of science was still – appropriately – considered a part of philosophy.)

"Thank goodness"


A couple of years ago, Daniel Dennett had emergency heart surgery. People asked him how this close call with death had affected his non-religious outlook. His response was an excellent consciousness-raiser. Here’s an excerpt:

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

Saying “Thank God!” as an expression of genuine relief is not always backed by an actual religious sentiment, any more than a reflexive “bless you” after someone sneezes is an attempt to prevent demons from entering through your open mouth. So many people may be thinking, “So what? Does it really matter which word I use?”

But Dennett’s reflections made me think. What we say – even if we only mean it in the most formulaic, casual sense – can convey ideas that we do not intend. And it can fail to point our gratitude in the right direction.

In the weeks after I read Dennett’s article, I made a conscious effort to use “thank goodness”, an expression which reflects my actual beliefs better. It wasn’t long before it became completely natural to use that rather than the less appropriate “thank God”. It’s still a little less natural than the other version, but I kind of like that. It means that, every time I say “thank goodness”, I am made every-so-slightly conscious of what term I’m using, and why.

What do you think? Do you try, like me, to keep your speech representative of your beliefs? Are you a non-theist but happy to use phrases like “thank God” and “bless you”, since they’ve basically been leached of their original meanings anyway?

Or, if you are a believer in a god, what do you think of this whole matter?

Periodic anniversary


It is once again the anniversary of the Periodic Table of the Elements. It was first introduced to the world on this day in 1869, in a presentation to the Russian Chemical Society by Chemist Dimitri Mendeleev.

I write this with a sleeping baby in one arm, so it’ll be brief.

First, a quiz for you – a fun activity for Periodic Table Day. Feel free to give your answers and other thoughts in the comments on this post.

  1. What was periodic about Mendeleev’s table?
  2. What was the reason (discovered much later) for that periodicity?
  3. How are the elements ordered in the table?
  4. Where does hydrogen belong – on the left or on the right? Why?
  5. What predictions did the original table suggest? Have they been confirmed?
  6. Does the Periodic Table depict a fact or a theory? Explain.

Okay, now a bit of periodic fun.

Lucy Stone


Among the blogs I follow is one by a Unitarian: Free and Responsible Search. Last week, Doug posted a story that he related at the Valentine’s Day service in his church, that really nails why I love the UUs. Here’s a teaser:

When Lucy Stone was a little girl, she decided that she was never, ever, ever going to get married.

She had a pretty good reason for making that decision, because she was living back in the 1800s. And in those days, when a man and a woman got married, the man became the boss. It said so right in the law. So if a woman owned some property, well, when she got married it wasn’t her property any more; it was her husband’s property. And if she had a job and made a little money – it wasn’t her money, it was her husband’s money. Because he was the boss.

Lucy didn’t want to have a boss, so one day she announced to her mother that she was never, ever, ever going to get married. And her mother said something that parents say a lot. I know I heard it from my parents and maybe you’ve heard it from yours. Her mother said: “When you get older, you’ll change your mind.”

Read the rest to learn why I wouldn’t mind at all if Kaia were to grow up among this particular religious community.

Open knowledge


Have you heard of Jessica Hagy’s index cards? You should have.

They’re all good, but this recent post seemed worth highlighting: