Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Ricky Gervais: Why I'm An Atheist

It's all over the twitters! Ricky Gervais turns the tables on theists and demands proof in his column, A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I'm An Atheist

His big point is to place the burden of proof on the theists, rather than the atheists. I imagine he'd be surprised to see such a fuss made about this point. It's not new. It's the application of scientific method (specifically empiricism) to God. In short, the idea is that God can't be objectively measured or observed, and that means there's no reason to believe that God is real[1].

Case closed. Right?

Well, yes and no. It provides compelling argument against a particular concept of God, while opening questions about the application of cross-disciplinary analysis. One at a time, though. The interesting question is whether the scientific method is the superior method for answering all questions. Whether God is real is a metaphysical question, but scientific method is not metaphysics. Should we use aesthetic methods to analyse the federal budget? Why is scientific method considered superior to aesthetic methods? Is it even appropriate, or is it like using a hammer when a screwdriver is appropriate? The use of scientific method is great when applied to scientific questions, but it's not a universally-applicable method.

As for the compelling arguments against God and heaven, he makes a great point. He talks about God as the one who lets people into heaven or sends them into hell.
And that’s where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. “Do this or you’ll burn in hell.”
This is brilliant. Religion based on a two-ways thinking of reward and punishment is driven by selfishness and fear. Instead, Ricky wants us to do unto others as we'd have them do to us. It's not unique to Christianity, but it's right near the centre.

And although I don't think that Ricky's plea is quite as strong as Jesus' command to love, it's a great start. We should be good to each other for no reason and no reward. That's going to be hard enough, and the right step towards genuine love.

1. I hesitate to say whether God "exists" or "is" because those are other kinds of questions.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Nuclear hostages

A lot has been written already about nuclear deterrence theory, and I've not read it all. The one part of it which sticks in my mind and won't let go is the role of civilians as hostages. After all, what is the deterrent other than the threat against civilian targets (people and places) to be exercised if certain demands aren't met?

Therefore, the key difference between a country maintaining a nuclear deterrent and a man with a gun to the head of a bystander is the number of hostages.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

US pressure on UK about Iranian banks

Senior US officials urged British banking regulators two years ago to take more draconian action against Iranian banks suspected of financing nuclear and missile programmes, US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks show.
WikiLeaks cables: US pressured British regulator to act against Iranian banks | Business | The Guardian

This is some promising news from the wonderful world of Wikileaks. I'm pleased to see non-military methods at work to stop nuclear proliferation. It's unfortunate that the evidence of involvement by these Iranian banks wasn't available in the cable, but I imagine that if there was inscrutable and solid evidence, there would be more than just financial pressure on banks.

Any use of non-violent methods to achieve objectives is better than violent methods. Nevertheless, I'm reminded that the country exerting the pressure here is the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons in war, and still maintains a very large stockpile of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. A single nuclear weapon is still one nuclear weapon too many, and is only made worse when that weapon is in the control of a demonstrably violent nation. We can have a world without nuclear weapons. We had one for a long time before the Manhattan Project and we can have it again if we want it.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Wikileaks Conflict

In the past week, there has appeared a lot of support for Wikileaks and its editor-in-chief, and there has been a lot of opposition to it and him. What many people are outraged about now is the action of a government to shut down an organisation that promotes itself as part of global journalism. By doing this, I think Wikileaks' supporters are missing the point and are playing into the hands of their opponents. It seems to me that there are three points of conflict in the entire debate.

The struggle to maintain or destroy Wikileaks as an organisation. At present this is the main focus of the media and social networking. You can see it as the government decries the actions of Wikileaks and as various organisations (Paypal, Visa, Amazon, etc.) withdraw their facilities from access by Wikileaks. The counter-arguments appear in newspapers and through the Wikileaks' use of Twitter and Facebook. This struggle is about whether the leaked information continues to be published and not about leaks in organisations themselves. This is about controlling the flow of information.

The criminal accusations against Julian Assange. This has the appearance of an ad hominem attack, designed to discredit Assange and, by implication, his work. The claims are quite serious, however, and should be taken seriously. Sexual assault of any kind, by anyone, should not be tolerated. If Assange is convicted, he will no doubt be imprisoned but the work of Wikileaks will continue. Wikileaks appears to be decentralised enough to withstand the loss of its founder.

The criminal accusations against various presidents, ministers, governments, officials, etc. In other words, the actual content of the leaked documents. Before the current round of leaked cables, there was little doubt that the actions of various individuals was criminal (e.g., the actions of the American helicopter crew in killing Iraqi civilians). A clever summary of this has appeared on the web. Refreshing the page loads new content each time. This is the forgotten area of conflict at the moment, and I think that's quite intentional. The accused have deflected the argument away from the content of the cables and press forward with their attacks on Assange and the existence of Wikileaks as an organisation.

It seems to me that anyone who wants to be involved in this issue has these three areas to consider. Opponents of Wikileaks are winning in the second area by having Assange arrested. They're especially winning in the third area by creating the first area. That is, they have successfully deflected attention away from the content of the leaked documents by creating a new focus for the argument.

For myself, this is a quick summary of where I stand on the three.
1. The activities of Wikileaks is important, whether or not is is conducted by Assange or even by Wikileaks. Crime and corruption in governments, corporations, institutions and other organisations should be exposed. Wikileaks could even retreat into obscurity and become an intermediary between individuals with information and journals who will report on them.
2. The investigation into sexual assault claims should proceed. Assange has done the right thing by cooperating with the investigation rather than remaining a fugitive.
3. People everywhere, especially journalists and bloggers, should read and comment on the leaked documents, and they should be noisy about it. Make more noise about this than anything else. It is clear that crimes have been committed, and that the perpetrators should be removed from office so as to prevent further harm. Any other legal consequences are a matter for the courts.