Archive for Philosophy

Chronicle of Belief: Part 3 – Nature’s Value

Posted in biology, personal views, Philosophy with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2010 by cpolsonb

This third installment of Chronicle of Belief is about a subject very personal to me as a budding Biologist; nature. It is very easy to say that the natural world is a thing worth protecting and few fellow skeptics or rationalists would disagree, but why? What is so important about nature and is there an objective rational justification for why nature has value? To begin with let’s look at what my particular field, Conservation Biology is really all about.

For many people I imagine conservation conjures images of protesters and hippies, marching in the streets or standing in front of bull dozers. That sort of naïve environmentalism is however often irrational, counter-productive and/or used as a means to push some other ideological agenda. Conservation Biology is a scientific discipline that looks at how biological communities react to change, how different species and the environment interact with one another and how we as humans can ensure the continued existence of these systems. At it’s core Conservation Biology has a number of guiding principles:

Principles of Conservation Biology

1. Evolution is the basic axiom that unites all biology. Conservation biologists do not aim to conserve the status quo, nor stop the evolutionary process but to ensure that populations can adapt naturally to environmental change.

2. The ecological world is dynamic and non-equilibrial. Conservation based on a static view of nature is fundamentally flawed and a mis-representation of the natural world. A dynamic view allows for a deeper understanding.

3. The presence of humans must be included in conservation planning. Conservation biologists aims to integrate humans into the equation and study their impact.

These principles are text-book simplifications of a complex scientific field and highlight the dynamic, integrated approach that conservation biologists must take when approaching questions. It is also valuable to note that conservation biology is a ‘crisis discipline’, having been born from the outrage at anthropogenic mass extinctions and environmental destruction of the last few centuries. In this way it is also a science of eternal vigilance, there can never be a complete theory conservation biology as it is reactionary and time dependent. It is also not an exact science, biological systems are far too complex to ever predict with the certainty of say for example, a chemical reaction.

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Richard Dawkins on ABC’s Q&A

Posted in News, Philosophy, Spirituality with tags , , , , on March 12, 2010 by cpolsonb

This past week Richard Dawkins appeared on the ABC program Q&A to answer some predictably heady questions. For those of you who don’t know Q&A is a weekly panel program where questions are posed to the panelists from the live studio audience or via the internet. The members of the panel change each week with some occasional repeats. Topics discussed vary greatly between weeks but if it’s a burning social, political or philosophical issue you can bet it’ll be featured on Q&A. It was really great of Richard Dawkins to accept his invitation to appear on Q&A, he must be aware that his reputation will precede him no matter where he goes and that he’ll often be fighting an uphill battle. Nevertheless he strides brazenly straight into the enemies line of fire and comes back safely having taken no prisoners.

For those of you in Australia you can watch the episode in full from the ABC website by following this link: ABC iViewNow unavailable

Everyone worldwide can still watch the episode in this slightly poorer quality version found here: Vidoemo

The other panelists alongside Richard Dawkins were the following:

Patrick McGorry – Australian of the Year
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio
Tony Burke – Minister for Agriculture
Julie Bishop – Deputy Opposition Leader
Steve Fielding – Family First Senator

If you’re curious about the questions that were asked, here is a complete transcript of the questions. You’ll have to watch the show to hear the answers though…

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Chronicle of Belief: Part 2 – Secular Humanism

Posted in personal views, Philosophy with tags , , , , on March 6, 2010 by cpolsonb

It’s time for the second installment of my “Chronicle of Belief” where I attempt to put into words my own world-view and the opinions and positions that help define me. This entry is about my identification with the label Secular Humanist, a particular world-view with which I sympathize and identify strongly. Before I begin explaining secular humanism I should start by clarifying my position on other terms commonly used by those who reject the supernatural and/or demand falsifiable evidence for claims about reality. Of these people some of the most common terms I hear used are skeptics, rationalists, critical thinkers, agnostics, atheists and humanists. I must make clear that this blog entry is not about arguing for or against the existence of divine beings. I am planning on dividing my evaluation of particular arguments for divinity into a series of future blog posts. This is simply about which branch of non-believers I identify with and why. I am also not discussing which particular belief systems I believe are objectively “better” than any other. While I do believe strongly that beliefs in the supernatural range along a spectrum with demonstrably harmful on one side (Jonestown) and perfectly harmless on the other (loose deists) this post is not a discussion on such matters. I shall enter now into a case by case discussion on particular labels associated with a rejection of the supernatural:

Atheism vs Agnosticism
This issue is perhaps one of the strongest and most passionately debated topics dividing non-believers today. At the core of the issue is a true lack of definition for each of the terms. As well as this there are a myriad of sub-divisions and cross-overs between the camps. I couldn’t dream of covering the issue in any real depth, there are hundreds of pages of blog entries and forum threads which have attempted to do that already. Instead I’ll hit on a couple of main points as I see them.

One interpretation of atheism is that it requires an assertion that no gods exists. In this particular strand a truth claim is made that positively argues that there are no gods or divine beings. While this view is an honest interpretation of atheism it is also commonly set up as a straw man by believers in order to characterize the atheistic world-view as dogmatic and unscientific. I reject this view of atheism as there is no scientifically verifiable way to prove a negative. There is an equal amount of proof that the god of Abraham doesn’t exist as there is that a Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t exist. All that can be done scientifically is to prove that any interaction with reality claimed to be divine (like prayer or creationism) actually occurred through natural means. So far this effort has been successful and I’m not aware of any testable divine claim that has turned out to be truly supernatural.

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Omega Point(less?) Theory

Posted in Philosophy, Physics, pseudoscience, skepticism, Spirituality with tags , , , , , on February 22, 2010 by cpolsonb

After my somewhat silly blog post about the Unidentified Foreign Obstacle I feel everyone deserves a post with a bit more substance. To this end I wish to explore Frank J. Tipler’s “Omega Point Theory.”

A member of the “skeptics guide to the universe” forum recently posted the following in the religion/philosophy section.

I wonder if anyone is familiar with Dr. Tiplers’ theory of the Omega Point. It’s been dubbed a kind of scientific explanation of heaven. I am currently in the process of creating a graphic novel about the mythology of religion, in so far as it’s all myth. Anyway, I want to include this in the part about “heaven” but I want to include the criticism of the theory but I’m not a scientist. It seems preposterous and definitely gets my skeptic red flags out but I’d like to hear what’s wrong with the equation/theory in question.

Well I’m not a scientist (yet) either but thought I’d put some reading time in and tackle the question. I shall briefly summarize the idea behind Frank Tipler’s “Omega Point Theory” in as simple terms as I can. I am no expert (or even amateur) physicist and am myself only vaguely able to understand some of the physics behind Tipler’s theory. Despite my (and many readers) lack of physics background the logical principles and critical thinking involved in criticizing the theory are easily accessible and comprehensible to all:

The “Omega Point” is the term given by Tipler for the ultimate fate of the universe. Tipler argues that the universe will undergo a sort of “big crunch”, a hypothesis still circulated as a possibility by modern physicists. Some calculations have predicted that this big crunch might occur around 42 billion years from now. A big crunch involves the universe eventually contracting back on itself until it reaches a primordial state (perhaps initiating another big bang). For this to occur then the gravitational force of all the matter in the universe needs to be sufficient to counteract the energy with which the universe is expanding. Unfortunately for Tipler and other proponents of the big crunch it is now almost certain that rather than the expansion of the universe slowing and reversing it’s actually speeding up! This could instead result in a sort of big rip as the fabric of the universe tears itself apart.

Irregardless of scientific evidence Tipler’s Omega Point Theory proceeds under his specific notion of the end of the universe. To cut to the meatier part of his theory Tipler argues that as the universe contracts exponentially fast, so to the maximum computational capacity of the universe will increase (faster than time runs out). In essence he’s saying that a computer could theoretically use the contraction of the universe to power itself and operate at a speed which is faster than time, giving it infinite energy (apparently). How exactly this would be accomplished is beyond my understanding, but this theory gets even better! This ultimate computer with the infinite energy could then use it’s power to effectively resurrect every human that ever lived. This computer or “God” as Tipler refers to it as will then go about simulating a paradise reality for every human being. In case you haven’t figured out what this “simulated paradise” is yet I’ll give you a clue.

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