Saturday, 28 April 2007

the world can sleep easier tonight! : )

Many big show business names have offered support to the campaign to address global warming, but now some real muscle has joined the fight! Yes, Spinal Tap has re-formed, and is on the campaign trail, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.

It has taken the rock heavyweights a little time to realise the extent of the problem ("Nigel thought it was just because he was wearing too much clothing." says film-maker Rob Reiner), but now the band is rocking out with their new single, Warmer than Hell, and a scheduled appearance at the London Wembley Live Earth concerts organised by Al Gore in his crusade against global warming.

Truly the world can sleep a little easier tonight. : )

Friday, 27 April 2007

personal peace and affluence

A recent study reported in today's Sydney Morning Herald suggests Sydney's most affluent people may be among the most selfish in South East Asia. A survey of the richest 20% of 5 cities showed that Sydneysiders' highest saving and spending priorities were for their own pleasure, such as retirement, travel and new hobbies, well ahead of their children's education and leaving an inheritance for their children, which are generally the highest priorities in the other cities.

There may of course be reasons other than selfishness for these preferences, but the study does support the conclusions of other observers, such as psychologist Oliver James, who visited Sydney recently and met people who were affluent but, he felt, had empty lives.

Author Francis Shaeffer observed decades ago that the main ethical values of modern capitalist society were "personal peace and affluence". Psychologist Ed Diener said: “Materialism is toxic to happiness”.

I think we mostly all know that focusing our lives and energies on becoming wealthy does not bring satisfaction and wellbeing (see how to be happy? for more detail on this), so why do we so often fall into the trap?

Saturday, 21 April 2007

cosmic jackpot?

Photo: NASA

I have long been a fan of physicist and author Paul Davies. Books like "About Time" and "The Mind of God" are excellent scientific reading from a well credentialled theoretical physicist and cosmologist which also touch on bigger questions like "how and why does the universe exist?" and "is there any objective meaning to our lives?".

Davies has written several books on the "anthropic principle", the scientific observation that the fundamental laws and values of the universe appear to have been "fine-tuned" to support life. If such fundamentals as the force which binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of the atom, the strength of the gravitational force, or the relative masses of protons, electrons and neutrons, were varied by sometimes extremely small amounts, life, planets, stars and even the universe itself would not exist. Thus the odds against this fine-tuning occurring by chance are unbelievably enormous.

This has led some people to suggest that the universe was deliberately designed by a god, a conclusion Davies himself came close to endorsing in "The Mind of God" (1993). Now Davies has just released a new book on a similar subject, "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life", and based on reviews, he seems to have weakened in his support for "the god explanation". He does still tend to believe in an undefined "life principle" in the cosmos, but admits that this "is something I feel more in my heart than in my head." And his main emphasis is on finding an explanation for the universe from within the universe.

Some people just say that the laws and values had to take on some values, and why question it? But if the fine-tuned design is accepted, there seem to be four main scientific hypotheses for this:

  • There is some underlying fundamental reason for these values that we just don't know yet.
  • The multiverse: if there was not one universe but absolutely zillions of them, the odds of one of them being just right for life may not be so high. But there is no evidence for the multiverse and it seems somewhat far-fetched to believe in zillions of universes. Davies rejects this option, because in his view it raises more problems than it solves.
  • If there are advanced cultures somewhere in the universe with advanced computer technology, they could develop a simulation of the universe (sort of like "the Matrix" writ huge). Since the universe is so huge, it is likely this may have occurred, and therefore quite likely we are all virtual people in a virtual universe. Fanciful (to say the least) as this hypothesis may seem, some people are postulating it, and Davies touches on it too. But it seems to me that this option isn't useful, because it still doesn't explain the origin of the "real" universe where this advanced civilisation is supposed to exist.
  • A fourth option is that the fundamental laws and values of the universe are not fixed as commonly thought, but somehow "evolved" in a way that allowed life to begin. The mechanisms of biological evolution (mutation and natural selection) will not be relevant here, but Davies speculates another mechanism. He suggests that just as quantum physics seems to allow backwards causation in time (things in the present cause things in the past), contrary to normal reason, so the same may have occurred in the universe. Way back not long after the big bang, life in the future caused the laws to evolve in ways that would lead towards that life. It may come as no surprise that critics say this idea is even more wild, speculative and unjustified (perhaps even unjustifiable) than the alternatives.

I find all this quite fascinating, but I can't help feeling that if the multiverse, a "Matrix" universe, or backwards causation, are the best scientific theories around, the god hypothesis doesn't look so wild at all.

Check out reviews of Davies' new book at Amazon and on the "Reality Conditions", the "Uncertain Principles" or the "Reference Frame" blogs. Read about the Multiverse, the "Matrix universe" and time in quantum physics. Or check out Paul Davies' home page or the April/May 2007 issue of Cosmos which includes an article by Davies on this topic.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

hear their heartbeat

Fighting and genocide in Sudan has been a terrible feature of our world for several decades. A friend of mine was an aid worker in Africa maybe 25 years ago, and the Sudan was considered too unsafe then for his organisation to attempt to bring help to the suffering people of southern Sudan.

In the last decade, the western region of Darfur has been in the news as hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes, victims of Arab militias who burn villages, destroy livestock and water sources, kill and rape. More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003. Amnesty International says that there is "incontrovertible" evidence that the Sudanese government and military are supporting these militias by supplying them and by bombing villages.

Now, as reported in the Melbourne Age newspaper, Google Earth has joined with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in a project to publicise this genocide and hopefully bring effective pressure to bear to stop the killing. Google Earth provides high resolution satellite imagery that allows users to zoom in on Darfur and see the destruction for themselves.

It would be good to pass on these links to others and so give greater publicity to the people of Darfur's plight.

We hear their heartbeat In the trees Our sons stand naked Through the walls Our daughters cry See their tears in the rainfall." U2, "Mothers of the Disappeared"

Sunday, 8 April 2007

is there anybody in there?


How much are we responsible for what goes on in our brains?

In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled "Grey Matter" (April 6-8 2007), Jeffrey Rosen discusses how current neuroscience is impacting on our understanding of human behaviour. In particular, neuroscience is being used in criminal trials as defense teams use brain scans to argue that if the defendent's brain can be shown to not be functioning in a normal way, they cannot be held responsible for their actions.

This makes you wonder whether we control our brains or they control us, whether our minds are our brains or something more. Joshua Greene, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard University: "To a neuroscientist, you are your brain; nothing causes your behaviour other than its operation. If that's right, it radically changes the way we think about the law." Greene says we should "abandon the idea of retribution, the idea that people should be punished because they have freely chosen to act immorally."

However, as Rosen points out, "since all behaviour is caused by our brains, wouldn't this mean all behaviour could potentially be excused?" Stephen Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania insists "brains don't commit crimes; people commit crimes". He argues, for example, that the differences in murder rates between youths in Scandinavia and the US indicates that it is more than just immature adolescent brains that determines behaviour.

The article raises some deep questions about how our minds and selves relate to our brains, questions which inner and outer space will return to again.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

mate against mate?

In the last six months, Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion has been near the top of the non-fiction best seller lists. I haven't read it, but you can read Richard's summary of his ideas here.

Dawkins' strong anti-God views have generated much comment. The atheists love it and the theists criticise it, as you might expect - Wikipedia has a summary of comments. I won't quote the obvious for and against responses, but there are a few interesting ones - believers who give Dawkins some credit or non-believers who find his views simplistic and erroneous. Here is a sample:

  • "[if discussions about disagreements between science and religion] are to be worthwhile, they will have to take place at a far higher level of sophistication than Richard Dawkins seems either willing or able to muster." H. Allen Orr, Professor of Biology, University of Rochester.
  • "11/2 cheers for Richard Dawkins. There's so much to applaud in Richard Dawkins. Such as his rage against bad religion. But he's out of his depth in his new book, The God Delusion, when he attacks all forms of faith." Stephen Tomkins, Ship of Fools website.
  • "The more they [card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins] detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be." Terry Eagleton, Marxist and Professor of English Literature at Manchester University in "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching".

Now Dawkins' fellow Oxford academic and long time critic, Alister McGrath, has co-authored a response to "The God Delusion", a book titled (you guessed it!) "The Dawkins Delusion". McGrath has previously published "Dawkins' God", which critiques Dawkins' views on religion (read a summary of his views here) and "The Twilight of Atheism" which charts what McGrath sees as the rise and decline of atheism over the past 200 years from a historical perspective. Predictably, his new book has been greeted with scorn by atheists and approval by believers.

The critics say that McGrath does not offer any argument to support his belief in God, but this appears to miss the point. McGrath has already attempted that elsewhere. In this book, rather than discussing reasons to believe in God, McGrath appears to be analysing Dawkins' thought, and discussing whether religion is really the source of so much evil and whether its elimination would make the world a better place - read McGrath's own summary here.

While Dawkins seems to me to be more comfortable as a writer than as a debater, McGrath seems to be the type who would relish a full-on debate. I'm only aware of one occasion when the two have discussed their very different views, during the TV program "The Root of All Evil?", but unfortunately the discussion was not included in the final program.

In recent times, it seems that atheism has become much more militant, and the belief-unbelief debate seems to have become much more polarised. Both believers and unbelievers can read about science and religion from experts writing from their own perspective and which don't necessarily represent their opponents' views fairly. Each side can have firmly held views on the falsity of the opposing view, when in fact they lack any real understanding of it. Writers are viewed as authoritative, not because of their learning, but because their views are known in advance to be "acceptable". It seems to me to be a pity.

So, granted the criticism of Dawkins' lack of understanding and scholarship even by those who otherwise agree with him, I can't help feeling it would be a pity if people who read Dawkins uncritically don't read McGrath as well.

Read more on the track records of religion and unbelief, or on the reasons why people believe and disbelieve.

Monday, 2 April 2007

marriage strategies

Living together before marrying is now a common choice for many people. In 1975 only 16% of couples lived together prior to marriage, but in 2001 the percentage had risen to 72%. There are many reasons why people choose this path, but one reason is the expectation that this will increase the likelihood of a successful relationship. "They think 'try before you buy' minimises the risk of divorce" says University of Queensland researcher, Belinda Hewitt.

In a paper presented in October 2006, Hewitt examines the subsequent divorce rate of couples who cohabited prior to marriage and those who did not, and concludes that couples who live together are significantly more likely to divorce - 72% more likely in 1975, reducing slightly to 63% more likely in 1995. She concludes: "cohabiting before marriage is not an effective strategy for minimising the risk of marriage breakdown." However she concedes that the risk appears to be diminishing slowly, so that at some future time the risk of marriage breakdown may be the same in the two groups.


Hewitt speculates on why this is so, and concludes that one of the likely reasons may be "differences in values and beliefs" between the two groups. "Those who cohabit ... are less conventional in their attitudes towards relationships and marriage or have lower levels of commitment to marriage" - religious beliefs or membership of ethnic minority communities may be reasons for this difference in attitude. Another reason given by other experts is that "attitudes towards acceptance of divorce were more positive after a period of non-marital cohabitation than they were prior".

Two other aspects of marriage have recently been reported.

  • Another paper co-authored by Belinda Hewitt reported that "women in indirect marriages (marriages that are preceded by a period of cohabitation) spend less time on housework than women in direct marriages (marriages without a preceding period of cohabitation)."
  • In an article in several Australian newspapers Jacqui Taffel reported on a slight trend for married couples to live apart to reduce the tensions of sharing the same space while still maintaining the relationship.

It seems that we are in the middle of a huge "real time" experiment in relationships and marriage, with sometimes unpredictable outcomes.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

earth hour - the sequel


It seems that I underestimated the effectiveness of Earth Hour last Saturday evening, based on observations in Sydney's southern suburbs. True, our Anglican Church, which has a youth service and dinner on Saturday evening, turned off its lights and had dinner by candlelight, but not many houses seemed to take part.

But even though only 65,000 houses and 2,000 organisations registered to participate, polls indicated more than 2 million people (half of Sydney's population) switched off their lights, with many turning off appliances and TVs as well.

Estimates of the overall impact are still being made, but in the normally brightly-lit CBD offices, entertainment venues, advertising signs and public icons like the Harbour Bridge and Opera House had lighting turned off, and energy usage for that hour was estimated to be 10% reduced. For photos and details, see the Sydney Morning Herald's report.

The originators of the idea, environmental organisation WWF, hailed the first Earth Hour as a success, and foreshadowed a world-wide Earth Hour in 2008.