Monday, 27 August 2007

selfish genes?

It was a nightmare story which attracted enormous public interest.

A couple of months ago, in Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, the morning peak hour was disturbed by a man dragging a young woman towards a taxi. Two men intervened to help the woman, shots were fired and the assailant fled. One man, a husband, father and city solicitor on his way to work, lay dead. The other man, a Dutch backpacker, and the woman, were seriously injured, but survived.

And in the following days people asked: "In the same situation, would you intervene?"

Altruism is an interesting phenomenon, and was discussed in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article. It is a key question in any discussion of ethics.


Where do ethics come from, and why should we obey them? And why should we help others if we may endanger ourselves?

There seem to be three main views:

1. Some would say human beings have no ability to choose beyond how our brains are programmed, and therefore, ethics are an illusion. Thus Professor William Provine says: "Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. ..... no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; .... and human free will is nonexistent."

If this view is true, then we don't have any real choice about altruism - it is something our brains either do or don't lead us to do. We have evolved to sometimes behave in unselfish ways, if it benefits the species, and the survival of our genes. "Psychiatrist Dr Michael Dudley thinks our selfishness and also our latent altruism might simply get back to biology. He says there are arguments for altruism being beneficial for the species."

But if this view is true, we cannot really criticise another person's behaviour, no matter how extreme - they are behaving as they are programmed to do. It also makes punishment for crime unfair.

2. Others also believe that ethics, and altruism in particular, did evolve as human society evolved, but that we have a genuine choice whether we act selfishly or unselfishly. Thus social researcher Hugh Mackay writes: ".... morality is a social construction. At its core is the idea of mutual obligation .... willingness to take the rights, needs and welfare of others into account, on the assumption that they will do the same for us."

But this then raises some difficult questions. If I have a choice, why should I disadvantage myself for the sake of someone else? Why should I follow society's rules if I think I can get away with it?

And who decides what is right and what is wrong anyway? A common answer, evident in Mackay's comment above, is that society as a whole decides. But are we really willing to accept that? If the majority of Germans supported Hitler (I'm doubtful they actually did, but this is a hypothetical), would that make the Holocaust "right" for them? And presumably wrong for the rest of us? Was slavery right when the majority accepted it?

In the end, most of us believe some things are REALLY right or wrong, but this doesn't fit well with this view of ethics.

3. The third view argues that ethics have a factual basis in the universe and can be true just as the laws of physics are true, with the difference that we have a choice about obeying ethical "laws". This view raises its own set of difficulties. Who or what makes things 'right' in the universe? And if the answer is "God", then which god are we talking about?

Nevertheless, this view is the only one which explains what we generally believe about ethics, that some things really ARE right and wrong.

So altruism isn't a simple thing. It seems to go against nature. Hugh Mackay: "It's actually not natural. The natural thing is to go along with the crowd." Thus altruistic behaviour is, for some, another indication that the naturalistic explanation for ethics isn't correct.

And perhaps altruism is becoming a rarer thing. After the Melbourne shooting, police spokesman Senior Constable Wayne Wilson said: "I have no doubt we're a far more selfish society and far more individually-orientated than we ever used to be. For that reason, people are less willing to intervene in a humanitarian way in other people's lives."

Perhaps ethical behaviour and personal integrity are also becoming less common on an individual level (e.g. truthfulness, faithfulness in marriage, selfishness, greed), even as it appears that we are making progress in improving society in the areas of racism, sexism, pedophilia, abuse and war.

Would you intervene if someone needed assistance?

Read more about where ethics come from, how our brains work, and our responsibility for what our brains decide.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

don't drink the water!

Three songs about how white colonial people treated indigenous or black people:

Don't Drink the Water (Dave Matthews Band):

Written as the thoughts of a white colonist in frontier America, as he pushes the native Americans off their land, telling them "There's no place here ... not room for both, just room for me." The song ends with these devastating words:

"'Cause you're all dead now I live with my justice I live with my greedy need I live with no mercy I live with my frenzied feeding I live with my hatred I live with my jealousy I live with the notion That I don't need anyone but me

Don't drink the water There's blood in the water"

Blind Willie McTell (Bob Dylan)

Dylan starts by stating his thesis that America's prosperity is compromised: "Seen the arrow on the doorpost saying, 'This land is condemned, all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem'" then quickly paints a series of scenes from the days of slavery. He ends with this conclusion:

"Well, God is in his heaven And we all want what's his But power and greed and corruptible seed Seem to be all that there is I'm gazing out the window Of the St. James Hotel And I know no one can sing the blues Like Blind Willie McTell"

Solid Rock (Goanna)

The white settlement in Australia from the viewpoint of indigenous Australians, who, understandably, feel betrayed:

"They were standin' on the shore one day, Saw the white sails in the sun Wasn't long before they felt the sting, white man, white law, white gun Don't tell me that it's justified, 'cause somewhere, someone lied Yeah well someone lied, someone lied, genocide Well someone lied."

Whenever I hear that song, I feel the raw sting of those words: "Someone lied".

Some people want to ignore our history, because they feel it wasn't our fault and only opens up negative thoughts. It wasn't our doing, but we can, and should, feel grief for the people our ancestors treated inhumanly, even if in ignorance.

Of course it is still happening today, as Indonesia invades and subjugates the people of Irian Jaya while the rest of the world finds it more convenient to look the other way.

"Someone lied!"

Sunday, 19 August 2007

what sort of human being would you create?

Graphic taken from the Emergence lab website.

I read about an interesting new "show" on the weekend (I put "show" in inverted commas because that might not be the best word - "experiment" might be equally applicable).

It's called Emergence, and it's an "interactive audiovisual performance" coming to the Sydney Opera House this week. In the show, each member of the audience takes on the role of parent and decides on the characteristics of a human being they create, and then watch to see how it works out.

Before each performance. audience members log in to the Emergence lab, and decide on traits for their developing embryo. At the performance, they discuss and then vote on their being's emotions and characteristics, then watch film clips and live theatre, even interacting with their creation, and see the consequences of their choices. It sounds simple, but reports suggest that the outcomes are emotionally engrossing and thought-provoking.

The most interesting thing for me is the types of choices people have tended to make during the show's initial season in Canberra.

  • The majority of people would not choose for their creation to always be happy, but would prefer them to be able to feel sadness. However most men would prefer they never could feel pain.
  • Only half of people, and even less of females, would like their being to always be honest.
  • People would generally prefer their being to be more critical rather than more empathetic, if they have to choose between the two - I find this very surprising.

It may be that, before too long, the choices faced in this show will be faced by real people. I wonder if we have any understanding of the implications of tinkering with the balance of what it means to be human?

Read reviews of Emergence in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Program.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

seeing the light

There's no doubt we humans have learnt to do some pretty clever things, but you have to wonder how smart we are.

It has been predicted that the world's reserves of petroleum will run out in about 30 years. Certainly we may discover more, but the rate of discovery is declining while the rate of use is growing, and faster than was predicted. If we don't do something, the next generation will certainly be forced to.

To make matters worse, our dependence on petroleum and other fossil fuel energy (such as coal-fired power stations) is a major cause of global warming.

There are quite a few alternatives to consider. For some people, nuclear power is the saviour, but for others it is the worst of all options. It would be wonderful if we could harness the more benign nuclear fusion, but that is still some way off.

Electric cars may one day take over from petrol vehicles, and geothermal energy may one day be a useful energy source. But many believe our greatest hope is to develop the safe and renewable energy sources - solar, wind, hydroelectric and tidal.

At present, renewables constitute only a small percentage of the world's energy sources, with fossil fuels being dominant at 67%. But the use of renewables, especially solar, is growing fast.

The sun (here shown being eclipsed) is ultimately the source of all our energy
(photo from

Japan, the US and Germany lead the world in the use of solar power. In recent news, Germany is to build solar energy plants to generate almost a third of its needs. This is remarkable, considering that Germany has significantly less hours of sunshine per year than countries closer to the equator. India, Australia and large areas of Africa and South America have the largest number of sunshine hours and hence the greatest potential for solar energy.

Australia is also one of the leading nations in the development of solar technology, has vast areas of high sunshine, yet many believe we have squandered our natural opportunities. Currently renewable sources provide only about 5% of Australia's energy, with solar being only a small part of this. Many people believe we could and should do much more if only Governments would provide the right incentives. Certainly the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that many people are willing to pay more for renewable energy. However Australia has a lot of coal, which earns a lot of export dollars, and the coal industry is a powerful lobby group.

So we may be the "lucky country", but it seems like we have a way to go to be the smart country.

Friday, 10 August 2007

we know more than we can tell

What does riding a bicycle tell us about science and knowledge? (Photo:Webshots)

We live in a world where science and technology rule. So much so that some people seem to think that the only kind of real knowledge is that revealed by science. "Show us the evidence" they say, "We only believe what can be demonstrated." It all sounds very reasonable. It is, in fact, an expression of a philosophy known as positivism: "the only way we can know something is through empirical evidence, that is, observable via our senses."

Michael Polanyi was a scientist and philosopher who lived through much of the twentieth century. He reacted against positivism, and came to the conclusion that "We know more than we can tell".

From his and others' insights have come the ideas of tacit knowledge and the relevance paradox. Tacit knowledge is the information we carry in our heads that cannot be easily explained through logical statements. How to ride a bicycle might be an example - it cannot be learnt from a textbook, but requires experience and practice.

The relevance paradox arises where a group of people miss important information because they did not recognise its relevance. A classic example (according to Wikipedia) was when NASA scientists were trying to develop a knee joint for a spacesuit, and finally found that their problem had been solved centuries before, and the solution could be seen in King Henry's suit of armour in the tower of London.

Why is all this important? I want to suggest three reasons:

1. Tacit knowledge has been found to be important in innovation and research. Despite the scientific method being all about testing the evidence, many top scientists say that their initial ideas came via inspiration, which were then verified by evidence. Sometimes we know more than we can tell.

2. We have been burned many times by the relevance paradox, for example, in ecology. In Australia, foreign plant and animal species have been introduced for some purpose thought good at the time, but almost all have turned out disastrously:

  • foxes and rabbits were introduced for sport, but now wreak environmental havoc;
  • European Carp and the lantana plant were let loose in the wild and now are in pest proportions;
  • cane toads were introduced to control two species of beetle which are pests for cane growers, but have multiplied and spread across vast areas of northern Australia, leading to much destruction of native species
  • non-native feral cats are one of the biggest threats to many smaller native animals and birds which have never before had to cope with such voracious and vicious predators.

European settlers in Australia didn't understand the environment they were effectively experimenting with - and fell victim to the relevance paradox.

3. I think there is a danger that twenty-first century western culture is falling foul of the relevance paradox and ignoring tacit knowledge in many ways. So much of what we know and do is changing so fast, from ethics to relationships to information and entertainment. It is like we are in the middle of an enormous social experiment and we don't know where we'll end up. Some of the gains are enormous, for example in medicine and communication, but I can't help feeling we may be throwing away some of the intangibles like ethics, courtesy, faith, altruism and common decency a little too fast. We may live to regret it. We know more than we can tell, but not as much as we think we do.

It is interesting to note that sociologists tell us that "modernism", built on the certainties of science has now almost passed, and given way to "postmodernism", which has far fewer certainties. But that's another story.

Read what Wikipedia has to say about Michael Polanyi, tacit knowledge and the relevance paradox.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

truth in advertising?

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

miracles happen?

I guess most of us have seen the bumper stickers ... Some are positive ("miracles happen", "magic happens"), some tell us more negative stuff that we already know.

But can miracles really happen? And how could we be sure?

are there any credible accounts of apparent miracles?

Again, most of us have probably heard them, stories and urban myths that have come to us maybe sixth or seventh hand, so we have no way of assessing their reliability. We'd like to know if the witnesses are reliable; we'd like to know if there's any documentation.

But here are a few accounts which do have documentation and do appear to have reliable witnesses, so they are at least worth considering.

  • Recently, American heart surgeon, Dr. Chauncey W. Crandall IV, gave an account of a man he had attended in hospital after he had suffered a massive heart attack. After attempts to re-start his heart had failed, the man was pronounced dead by the medical team. However Dr Crandall prayed for the man's healing, his heartbeat returned and he subsequently recovered. This is not the first time Dr Crandall has observed a miraculous healing after prayer. Dr Crandall is a respected cardiologist (as this summary shows) with over twenty years experience, he has performed heart operations in many hospitals and holds professorships in several universities, so this miracle is very well attested.
  • In January 2006, Patsy was admitted to hospital with a virulent form of encephalitis, a virus that attacks the brain. Within a few days she was in a coma, connected to life support, and the prognosis was grim - she was unlikely to survive, and if she did, it was likely her brain would be impaired. More than a thousand friends, relatives and friends of friends were enlisted to pray for her healing, and she started to improve. After a few months, doctors confidently predicted a full recovery. The family attributes her recovery to God's intervention, and her husband has set up a website and billboard to advertise this.
  • Many cases of apparently divine healing have been documented by the World Christian Doctors Network. Case studies of cancers, AIDS, multiple schlerosis and many other illnesses that were apparently healed miraculously are presented on the website, and include copies of case notes, scans and medical descriptions. It is hard to challenge such well-documented claims.
  • Lourdes is a village in France where many healing miracles are reputed to have occurred since 1858. Of the half million people seeking cures each year, several thousand healing miracles have been reported. Where possible, people claiming healing are examined on the spot by a medical bureau, and the information is reviewed by an international commission of medical specialists. To be regarded as authentic, claims have to satisfy three requirements: (a) the illness was well documented, (b) the symptoms disappeared within hours and (c) the healing lasted for several years. Most claims lack sufficient evidence to be verified, but 63 miracles have passed this stringent checking and have been proclaimed as authentic. (Read more here.)
  • I have also read a report of a medical investigation into 300 claimed miracles of healing at the Jamkaran mosque in Iran, in which 8 were authenticated, but I cannot find a reference to this now.

I find these reports, individually and as a whole, too credible to lightly discard.

but can we seriously believe miracles occur today?

Many people believe that miracle stories are simply not credible - our scientific knowledge has shown them to be impossible. But it seems to me that there are three possible explanations for an alleged miracle:

  1. The story is untrue - it was a mistake or a fraud.
  2. There is a natural explanation - perhaps coincidence or natural recuperative powers which we at present don't understand.
  3. A supernatural (= beyond nature) explanation - God or another supernatural being did it.

I cannot believe all the above reports are frauds or mistakes, and I cannot believe they are all coincidences. If you believe the universe is a closed system and nothing exists outside it to interfere, then you cannot believe in a supernatural cause, and there is no obvious explanation for these miracles. But if you believe there could be a god (which is not something science can prove or disprove), then you are able to consider that explanation.

So I don't think it is science which prevents our belief in miracles, but a belief that nothing exists beyond this natural world. I don't think that's a good assumption.

what may we conclude?

Each person will draw their own conclusions about how much all this "proves", but it seems at least we can say that:

  • it would be foolish to write off the miraculous too quickly, and
  • if we need healing, it would be sensible to ask.

Since I wrote this, I have searched out some other reports on the apparent miracle involving Dr Crandall. Check out these additional reports in a later blog, here.

For more documented accounts of apparent miracles, see Healing miracles and God.

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