Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Friday, September 16, 2005

If there is no God...

Another piece that claims that if there is no God, or we believe there is no God, then anything goes, this time from "Renew America". One thing that bothers me about these guys - do they think that because we don't believe in God we don't care about our kids? Or if you believe in God, then you are restrained from your natural tendency to screw everything up for your descendants?

Who knows, perhaps they are. Perhaps without the firm belief that they are the goods and chattel of a capricious and scary being of unlimited power who will beat the living crap out of them forever, they really would treat everything as garbage and other people as dirt. Let them continue in their religion, then, and let's all hope they don't ever get control of military weapons.

Mill, on moral nature

The only admissible moral theory of Creation is that the Principle of Good cannot at once and altogether subdue the powers of evil, either physical or moral; could not place mankind in a world free from the necessity of an incessant struggle with the maleficent powers, or make [22] them always victorious in that struggle, but could and did make them capable of carrying on the fight with vigour and with progressively increasing success. Of all the religious explanations of the order of nature, this alone is neither contradictory to itself nor to the facts for which it attempts to account. According to it, man's duty would consist, not in simply taking care of his own interests by obeying irresistible power, but in standing forward a not ineffectual auxiliary to a Being of perfect beneficence; a faith which seems much better adapted for nerving him to exertion than a vague and inconsistent reliance on an Author of Good who is supposed to be also the author of evil. And I venture to assert that such has really been, though often unconsciously, the faith of all who have drawn strength and support of any worthy kind from trust in a superintending Providence. There is no subject on which men's practical belief is more incorrectly indicated by the words they use to express it than religion. Many have derived a base confidence from imagining themselves to be favourites of an omnipotent but capricious and despotic Deity. But those who have been strengthened in goodness by relying on the sympathising support of a powerful and good Governor of the world have, I am satisfied, never really believed that Governor to be, in the strict sense of the term, omnipotent. They have always saved his goodness at the expense of his power. They have believed, perhaps, that he could, if he willed, remove all the thorns from their individual path, but not without causing greater harm to some one else, or frustrating some purpose of greater importance to the general well being. They have believed that he could do any one thing, but not any combination of things; that his government, like human government, was a system of adjustments and compromises; that the world is inevitably imperfect, contrary to his intention. And since the exertion of all his power to make it as little imperfect as possible leaves it no better than it is, they cannot but regard that power, though vastly beyond human estimate, yet as in itself not merely finite, but extremely limited. They are bound, for example, to suppose that the best he could do for his human creatures was to make an immense majority of all who have yet existed be born (without any fault of their own) Patagonians, or Esquimaux, or something nearly as brutal and degraded, but to give them capacities which, by being cultivated for very many centuries in toil and suffering, and after many of the best specimens of the race have sacrificed their lives for the purpose, have at last enabled some chosen portions of the species to grow into something better, capable of being improved in centuries more into [23] something really good, of which hitherto there are only to be found individual instances. It may be possible to believe with Plato that perfect goodness, limited and thwarted in every direction by the intractableness of the material, has done this because it could do no better. But that the same perfectly wise and good Being had absolute power over the material, and made it, by voluntary choice, what it is; to admit this might have been supposed impossible to any one who has the simplest notions of moral good and evil. Nor can any such person, whatever kind of religious phrases he may use, fail to believe that if Nature and man are both the works of a Being of perfect goodness, that Being intended Nature as a scheme to be amended, not imitated, by man.

John Stuart Mill, "On Nature", pp22-24, Nature, The Utility of Religion and Theism, edition of 1904, by Watts & Co., for the Rationalist Press. Emphasis mine, of course.

On the philosophy of things

There have been naturalists who, if they could but add names to the steril lumber of their memories, cared little about the philosophy of things. These have justly thrown a disgrace upon the study they pursued, and have almost justified the paradox for which others have contended, that names which meant nothing were the best. But surely, if it be at all useful to know one natural object from another, the memory cannot have too many helps, in so vast a science as natural history is now become.
James Edward Smith, The natural history of the rarer lepidopterous insects of Georgia, 1797, volume 1, p iv.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Microsoft breakthrough - almost as good as OS X

I can't resist this one. As an old (very old, yes, thanks for noticing) Mac evangelical, I noted with amusement this piece about the long touted Longhorn (which will soon qualify for the nickname Longtooth):
In a demonstration of Windows Vista, semitransparent windows on the computer desktop allowed users to see objects underneath, including moving video, while search results were displayed in real time as queries were typed in.
Excellent. Of course the Mac OS X has been able to do this for, how long is it now? four years? but let's give Microsoft a big hand for trying, again, to catch up. Maybe they'll make the next Office work properly.

All the Bush that's fit to quote

It somehow comforts me that a similar page to this can't be done for John Howard, and somehow worries me also. Still, Brendan Nelson seems to be making up for Howard's ability to string meaningful sentences together.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Bad science journalism

Almost every day we read something about how a "major breakthrough" has been made in this or that disease, or how some whizbang new technology or discovery has just been made. And almost every time, the actual science is obscured and distorted by the journalists to the point of stupidity. It's almost as if journalists never studied any science...

People who know me know that after ranting about Microsoft, my favourite targets are journalists. So it comes as a major surprise to me to read this piece in the Guardian on bad science journalism. Kudos to them. Here's a quote:
Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn't about something being true or not true: that's a humanities graduate parody. It's about the error bar, statistical significance, it's about how reliable and valid the experiment was, it's about coming to a verdict, about a hypothesis, on the back of lots of bits of evidence.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Mill, on Malthus

Time to put some quotes up. This is the first of, I hope, several.
The doctrine that, to however distant a time incessant struggling may put off our doom, the progress of society must "end in shallows and in miseries," far from being, as many people still believe, a wicked invention of Mr. Malthus, was either expressly or tacitly affirmed by his most distinguished predecessors, and can only be successfully combated on his principles. Before attention had been directed to the principle of population as the active force in determining the remuneration of labour, the increase of mankind was virtually treated as a constant quantity; it was, at all events, assumed that in the natural and normal state of human affairs population must constantly increase, from which it followed that a constant increase of the means of support was essential to the physical comfort of the mass of mankind. The publication of Mr. Malthus' Essay is the era from which better views of this subject must be dated; and notwithstanding the acknowledged errors of his first edition, few writers have done more than himself, in the subsequent editions, to promote these juster and more hopeful anticipations.
John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, "Of the stationary state", Bk IV, ch 6.

Everything is just perfect...

I sometimes think Wiley and I were separated at birth. Here is another really clever and truthful cartoon from Non Sequitur.