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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tony Blair: Mention God and you're a 'nutter'

By Jonathan Wynne-Jones and Patrick Hennessy for The Telegraph

25 November 2007

Tony Blair has sparked controversy by claiming that people who speak about their religious faith can be viewed by society as "nutters".

The former prime minister's comments came as he admitted for the first time that his faith was "hugely important" in influencing his decisions during his decade in power at Number 10, including going to war with Iraq in 2003. Mr Blair complained that he had been unable to follow the example of US politicians, such as President George W. Bush, in being open about his faith because people in Britain regarded religion with suspicion.

"It's difficult if you talk about religious faith in our political system," Mr Blair said. "If you are in the American political system or others then you can talk about religious faith and people say 'yes, that's fair enough' and it is something they respond to quite naturally. You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter. I mean … you may go off and sit in the corner and … commune with the man upstairs and then come back and say 'right, I've been told the answer and that's it'." Even Alastair Campbell - his former communications director who once said, "We don't do God" - has conceded that Mr Blair's Christian faith played a central role in shaping "what he felt was important".

Peter Mandelson, one of Mr Blair's confidants, claimed that the former premier "takes a Bible with him wherever he goes" and habitually reads it last thing at night. His comments, which will be broadcast next Sunday in a BBC1 television documentary, The Blair Years, have been welcomed by leading Church figures, who fear that the rise of secularism is pushing religion to the margins of society. The Archbishop of York, the Most Rev John Sentamu, said: "Mr Blair's comments highlight the need for greater recognition to be given to the role faith has played in shaping our country. Those secularists who would dismiss faith as nothing more than a private affair are profoundly mistaken in their understanding of faith." However, Mr Blair, who is now a Middle East peace envoy, has been attacked by commentators who say that religion should be separated from politics and by those who feel that many of his decisions betrayed the Christian community.

In the interview, Mr Blair, who was highly reluctant ever to discuss his faith during his time in office, admitted: "If I am honest about it, of course it was hugely important. You know you can't have a religious faith and it be an insignificant aspect because it's profound about you and about you as a human being. There is no point in me denying it. I happen to have religious conviction. I don't actually think there is anything wrong in having religious conviction - on the contrary, I think it is a strength for people." Mr Blair is a regular churchgoer who was confirmed as an Anglican while at Oxford University, but has since attended Mass with his Roman Catholic wife, Cherie, and is expected to convert within the next few months.

He continued: "To do the prime minister's job properly you need to be able to separate yourself from the magnitude of the consequences of the decisions you are taking the whole time. Which doesn't mean to say … that you're insensitive to the magnitude of those consequences or that you don't feel them deeply. If you don't have that strength it's difficult to do the job, which is why the job is as much about character and temperament as it is about anything else. But for me having faith was an important part of being able to do that… Ultimately I think you've got to do what you think is right."

Mr Blair's opponents say his religious zeal blinded him to the consequences of his actions, and point to his belief that his decision to go to war would be judged by God. The Rt Rev Kieran Conry, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, said last night that Mr Blair's comments echoed the feelings of religious leaders. Mr Campbell, in the same TV programme as Mr Blair, said the British public were "a bit wary of politicians who go on about God".

[Even though we already knew that Tony was a religious ‘nutter’ he couldn’t possibly say he was whilst still in office – at least not here in the UK. We are, as the article states, deeply suspicious of anyone who professes their faith publicly and most especially when that person holds a public office. I’m not exactly sure why we do hold that widespread belief. I’m not sure if enough people know our bloody religious history that well to use it as a basis for their opinion in this matter. It does seem to be a ‘gut feeling’ though that religion and power are best separated as much as possible. Maybe sense is common after all?]

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Life.

This Life has been a Test.

If it had been an 'Actual Life' you would have received Instructions on where to Go and what to Do.

Monday, November 26, 2007

New infrared camera aims to catch car share cheats

David Smith for The Observer

Sunday July 29 2007

Scientists have invented a roadside camera that can count the number of people inside a moving vehicle. The technology could be used to catch lone motorists who abuse congestion-easing car-share lanes. These lanes give priority to vehicles carrying at least one passenger, but can be misused by solo drivers who hope they will not be seen. Some even place human-like dummies in the seat beside them to create the illusion of a passenger.

The new Dtect system, which rapidly projects an infrared scan through a vehicle's windscreen, can distinguish human skin from mannequins, dogs or other diversions. Its inventors hope it will be in use before the end of the year. However, motoring organisations have dismissed the technology, arguing that Britain's roads do not have enough room for priority lanes and that it would be a long time before the reliability of such a device could be satisfactorily proved. The demand for an automated system has existed since 1998, when Leeds City Council created a car-sharing lane on the A647. Its scheme is enforced by council officers and police, who pull over suspected offenders and fine those who are guilty. But now experts at Loughborough University believe they have invented a more efficient system.

Loughborough's Dr John Tyrer - who is a director of Vehicle Occupancy, a company set up by the university to commercialise the invention - said: 'The problem with a policeman in a bright yellow coat is that you'll see him from afar, pull out of the priority lane, and then go back in later. You could stick a photo or dress a mannequin in the passenger seat, so CCTV is easily fooled. We couldn't use thermal images because they don't work through glass.' Tyrer and his team turned to multi-spectral imaging, which can capture light from frequencies invisible to the human eye, such as infra-red. Blood, hair and water content give human skin its own unique signature, distinct from car furniture, pets and anything else that might be in view.

Last year the Department for Transport announced plans for the first car-share lane on a motorway, allowing qualifying vehicles to bypass congestion on the M62 near Bradford, where the Highway Agency found that 84 per cent of vehicles were carrying one occupant during peak times. But Dtect met with a cool reception from motoring groups. Nigel Humphries, spokesman for the Association of British Drivers, said: 'We haven't got enough road space in this country for multiple occupants, buses, cyclists and three-legged dwarfs. You'd actually be prioritising school-run mums, and I thought we didn't want to prioritise them.'

Paul Watters, head of roads policy at the AA, said: 'It's been recognised that [car-share lanes] are only enforced effectively by a police presence. We'd need assurance of reliability. We've seen with speed cameras and number-plate thefts that people will find a way around things. The criminal end of motoring is very adept at that.'

[Of course I fully expect to be one of only a few people disturbed by this story. But I can’t help wondering where this particular technology will ‘creep’ next?]

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I Am:

An Atheist (obviously)

A Secular Humanist (which kind of follows)

A Naturalist but not a Naturist

A Democrat and a Republican (which might confuse some)

A Romantic and a Cynic (which confuses me sometimes)

A Sceptic

A Natural Stoic (which I have finally realised)

A Gamer but not a Player

A Loner but rarely lonely

A Student of life (and probably for life).

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.)

Article Origin: Unknown

In his use of critical reasoning, by his unwavering commitment to truth, and through the vivid example of his own life, fifth-century Athenian Socrates set the standard for all subsequent Western philosophy. Since he left no literary legacy of his own, we are dependent upon contemporary writers like Aristophanes and Xenophon for our information about his life and work. As a pupil of Archelaus during his youth, Socrates showed a great deal of interest in the scientific theories of Anaxagoras, but he later abandoned inquiries into the physical world for a dedicated investigation of the development of moral character. Having served with some distinction as a soldier at Delium and Amphipolis during the Peloponnesian War, Socrates dabbled in the political turmoil that consumed Athens after the War, then retired from active life to work as a stonemason and to raise his children with his wife, Xanthippe. After inheriting a modest fortune from his father, the sculptor Sophroniscus, Socrates used his marginal financial independence as an opportunity to give full-time attention to inventing the practice of philosophical dialogue.

For the rest of his life, Socrates devoted himself to free-wheeling discussion with the aristocratic young citizens of Athens, insistently questioning their unwarranted confidence in the truth of popular opinions, even though he often offered them no clear alternative teaching. Unlike the professional Sophists of the time, Socrates pointedly declined to accept payment for his work with students, but despite (or, perhaps, because) of this lofty disdain for material success, many of them were fanatically loyal to him. Their parents, however, were often displeased with his influence on their offspring, and his earlier association with opponents of the democratic regime had already made him a controversial political figure. Although the amnesty of 405 forestalled direct prosecution for his political activities, an Athenian jury found other charges—corrupting the youth and interfering with the religion of the city—upon which to convict Socrates, and they sentenced him to death in 399 B.C.E. Accepting this outcome with remarkable grace, Socrates drank hemlock and died in the company of his friends and disciples.

Our best sources of information about Socrates's philosophical views are the early dialogues of his student Plato, who attempted there to provide a faithful picture of the methods and teachings of the master. (Although Socrates also appears as a character in the later dialogues of Plato, these writings more often express philosophical positions Plato himself developed long after Socrates's death.) In the Socratic dialogues, his extended conversations with students, statesmen, and friends invariably aim at understanding and achieving virtue {Gk. areth [aretê]} through the careful application of a dialectical method that employs critical inquiry to undermine the plausibility of widely-held doctrines. Destroying the illusion that we already comprehend the world perfectly and honestly accepting the fact of our own ignorance, Socrates believed, are vital steps toward our acquisition of genuine knowledge, by discovering universal definitions of the key concepts governing human life.

Interacting with an arrogantly confident young man in Euqufrwn (Euthyphro), for example, Socrates systematically refutes the superficial notion of piety (moral rectitude) as doing whatever is pleasing to the gods. Efforts to define morality by reference to any external authority, he argued, inevitably founder in a significant logical dilemma about the origin of the good. Plato's Apologhma (Apology) is an account of Socrates's (unsuccessful) speech in his own defense before the Athenian jury; it includes a detailed description of the motives and goals of philosophical activity as he practiced it, together with a passionate declaration of its value for life. The Kritwn (Crito) reports that during Socrates's imprisonment he responded to friendly efforts to secure his escape by seriously debating whether or not it would be right for him to do so. He concludes to the contrary that an individual citizen—even when the victim of unjust treatment—can never be justified in refusing to obey the laws of the state. The Socrates of the Menwn (Meno) tries to determine whether or not virtue can be taught, and this naturally leads to a careful investigation of the nature of virtue itself. Although his direct answer is that virtue is unteachable, Socrates does propose the doctrine of recollection to explain why we nevertheless are in possession of significant knowledge about such matters. Most remarkably, Socrates argues here that knowledge and virtue are so closely related that no human agent ever knowingly does evil: we all invariably do what we believe to be best. Improper conduct, then, can only be a product of our ignorance rather than a symptom of weakness of the will {Gk. akrasia [akrásia]}. The same view is also defended in the PrwtagoraV (Protagoras), along with the belief that all of the virtues must be cultivated together.

[I think that I can confidently say that you will be seeing much about Socrates in the coming months. What little I know about him has impressed me so far. I’m looking forward to reading more about him.]

Monday, November 19, 2007

Catholics condemn 'twisted' Elizabeth film

By Malcolm Moore for The Telegraph

03/11/2007

Catholics have reacted angrily to a new film about Queen Elizabeth I, which is released in Britain today, branding it as "anti-papist propaganda". The chorus of abuse for Elizabeth: The Golden Age has been led from Rome, where a historian with close ties to the Vatican said a film that "so profoundly and perversely distorts history cannot be judged a good film".

Prof Franco Cardini said: "The enemy is always the same - Catholicism and above all the Holy See and the pope. The offence is continuous and very dire." He said Elizabeth I was portrayed as a strong and courageous queen "capable of donning armour while being a passionate woman who is in love". Her Catholic adversary, King Philip II of Spain "is naturally a caricature of a ferocious fanatic, who uses his rosary like a weapon and wanders around madly". The defeat of the Spanish Armada, according to Mr Cardini "is portrayed as a shining victory for free thought against the darkness of the Inquisition, of liberty against tyranny and so on".

Mr Cardini said the attacks on the Catholic Church in the film stemmed from a knowledge among other faiths that "without Catholicism, Christianity would lose its true fulcrum". He also pointed out it was to the credit of Philip and the pope that they went to the aid of Venice when it was threatened by the Turks, unlike Elizabeth, who concentrated on destabilising France. The Catholic News Service, which is run by the United States Bishops Conference, said: "With the single exception of Mary, Queen of Scots, all the Catholics in the film are twisted, embittered intriguers."

The National Catholic Register added: "The climax, a weakly staged destruction of the Spanish Armada, is a crescendo of Church-bashing imagery: rosaries floating amid burning flotsam, inverted crucifixes sinking to the bottom of the ocean, the rows of ominous berobed clerics sinking away in defeat." It said that the film was more damaging to the Catholic Church than the Da Vinci Code. The administrator of Westminster Cathedral has also been criticised for allowing scenes to be shot inside. Mgr Mark Langham even greeted the film as a "spectacular and evocative must-see for the autumn", although he acknowledged that the history was "distorted" and that "it does appear to perpetuate the myth of 'killer priests'". Father Ray Blake, of St Mary Magdalen in Brighton, said: "The film damages the Church throughout the world and does a disservice to truth."

Historical inaccuracies in the film include showing Fotheringay Castle, where Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded, at the end of a Scottish loch, when it was in fact on a flat plain in Northamptonshire. The film also shows a Babington plot assassin trying to fire his pistol at the queen, when in fact the scheme was thwarted much earlier. The makers of the film declined to comment.

[I saw this movie a few weeks ago and couldn’t help thinking that these critical comments where rather over-the-top and not a little hysterical. Of course the film was anti-Catholic! The movie told the story, culminating in the destruction of the Spanish Armada, from the English point of view. As far as I know Protestant England stood alone against largely Catholic Europe. In those far gone days Catholics and Protestants hated each other with a real and deep passion. To portray things otherwise would indeed have been a ‘disservice to the truth’. It was a time of religious war; religious motivated murder and torture and religiously inspired acts of terrorism (including the Catholic plot to blow up Parliament by Guy Fawkes). Some of that animosity was shown in the film. The imagery was sometimes graphic, if not a little heavy handed, but taken in context was hardly offensive.

What must also be remembered is that this was a movie – not a documentary. Movies of this kind put more bums on seats and hence more money in pockets when there are distinct ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. English attitudes to the Spanish as well as Spanish attitudes to the English were portrayed as less than cordial. That should hardly come as a surprise to anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the period. Not being an expert I didn’t find anything to get ‘uptight’ about and think that such outbursts hardly reflect well on the Catholic Church or the Vatican.]

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Just Finished Reading: The Coming Anarchy – Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War by Robert D Kaplan

Consisting of a number of articles published in the mid to late 1990’s Kaplan’s book seeks to examine the consequences to world politics of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The conclusions he draws are not pleasant ones but, he asserts, rather based on a more realistic assessment of the way things work and the way things are. Drawing on his experience in travelling and reporting from places as various as West Africa and the Balkans Kaplan attempts to show that the world is in the process of falling back to a place that Medieval scholars would have felt at home in. A world where borders are both more porous and ill defined, a world made up of confederations of city states and barbarous hinterlands, a world where Democracy is seen as a failed ideology, a place where practical hard-headed politicians must ‘sup’ with the Devil to get things done.

As far as I am concerned Kaplan singularly failed to make his case. The collapse of the Berlin Wall certainly changed global politics but not I think in the way Kaplan asserts. He’s right that there seem to be a growing number of failed states especially in Africa though I doubt this is a particularly new development. The West’s colonisations of and withdrawal from African land in particular is at least in part responsible for this. The imposition of Western values and Western government failed to take hold in these often artificially created nations so it is hardly surprising that they are ‘failing’ in that sense. Kaplan is right when he says that Democracy cannot (and should not) be imposed on countries singularly not ready for it. Democracy is an out growth of economic and social change that many countries have yet to experience. It is not something that can be imported like the latest cultural craze. Two contrasting articles either bored me – one on Kissinger’s Foreign policy or intrigued me – one on Conrad’s book Nostromo as an aid to understanding ‘developing’ nations - and I think were examples of the worst and the best from this volume. The last section – entitled The Dangers of Peace – greatly annoyed me. Kaplan attempted to put forward the idea that long periods of peace are debilitating to society and inevitably lead to weak politicians and a distracted mass population and therefore should be avoided as much as possible. War, he is apparently saying, is good both for society and the common man. I thought that this was a particularly nonsensical argument and actually rather offensive. Unfortunately after enjoying very much his other work Warrior Politics I find myself both disappointed and dismayed by this depressing and overly pessimistic volume.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Few Good Quotes:

In the long run, nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction religion offers to both is palpable. ~ Sigmund Freud

Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you're going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love. ~ Butch Hancock

Making fun of born-again Christians is like hunting dairy cows with a high powered rifle and scope. ~ P.J. O'Rourke

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Our Sentiments Exactly

by Frans de Waal

From Science & Spirit Magazine

There are some who see biology as the enemy of morality—as if accepting we are mere products of evolution means we would be absolved from the obligation to lead virtuous lives. It is a line of thought packed with assumptions, and chief among them is that before people had religions, they must have lacked ethics. But it’s difficult to imagine that our human ancestors could have existed without rules of right and wrong, and without assisting those in need. These tendencies are probably as old as humanity, likely predating our modern religions by hundreds of thousands of years.

In fact, the roots of morality may be even older than humanity. I am not claiming that monkeys and apes are moral beings, but I do believe that human morality derives from primate sociality. Charles Darwin saw it this way, writing in The Descent of Man: “any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.” It is not hard to recognize the two pillars of human morality in the behavior of other primates. These pillars are elegantly summed up by the golden rule, which transcends the world’s cultures and religions. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” brings together empathy (attention to another’s feelings) and reciprocity (if others follow the same rule, you will be treated well). Human morality could not exist without empathy and reciprocity, tendencies that are widespread in other primates.

After one chimpanzee attacks another, for example, a bystander chimp will often go over to embrace the victim; we have documented hundreds of cases. Usually, the effect of such consolation is that screaming, yelping, and other signs of distress come to a stop. In fact, the tendency to reassure others is so strong that Nadia Kohts, a Russian scientist who raised a juvenile chimp nearly a century ago, said that if her charge escaped to the roof of her house, there was only one way to get him down. Holding out food would not do the trick, nor would shouts and threats of punishment. The only way would be for her to sit down and sob, as if she were in pain. Her suffering would prompt the young ape, a worried look on his face, to rush down from the roof and put an arm around her. This indicates the strength of the empathic tendency in our closest relatives.

Reciprocity, on the other hand, can be seen in experiments with captive primates. Before giving one chimpanzee food to divide with others, we measure spontaneous grooming in the colony: who grooms whom and for how long. Grooming is a pleasurable, relaxing activity, and being groomed is much appreciated. In our experiment, we found that one chimpanzee grooming another greatly increased the chance that the first would get food from the second. In other words, the chimpanzees remembered who had groomed them and paid them back later in the day. Like humans, apes seem quite capable of keeping track of incoming and outgoing favors. Of course, these findings are not sufficient to speak of “morality,” but the tendencies observed in these primates fit what Scottish philosopher David Hume called the “moral sentiments.” Adding enforced social norms, our species turned the moral sentiments into an elaborate system that tells us how we ought to treat others and how we ought to promote the interests of the community.

This is quite different from the view that biology somehow counters morality. Despite what some popular authors have written, human nature is not all selfish and nasty, and we do not need religion to tame us into becoming moral beings. We are evolutionarily equipped with moral sentiments, which put the virtuous life within reach. In the effort to attain it, we are given an enormous helping hand from our background as social primates.

[Now this is certainly food for thought. It might explain, at least in part, where our morality comes from – or at least point to the origins of some of moralities building blocks. I am beginning to come around to accepting that there is at least some genetic component to morality and that it isn’t entirely cultural in nature. I have acquired a few books by Frans de Waal and will no doubt review them at some point probably in the New Year. I’m looking forward to having some interesting reading – maybe over the Christmas break?]

Monday, November 12, 2007

The meaning of life

Adrian Barnett 1997

One of the major misconceptions about atheists is that we have little or no respect for life - human or otherwise. Because we think that all life is some accidental freak of nature there is no meaning or purpose to it all, and it is all pretty worthless. We cannot possibly gain the same enjoyment and fulfilment from living that believers do. We care nothing for the suffering of others, as they're all just wormfood in the end. What fresh lunacy is this? (to quote Harry Hill.)

Yes, life on this planet is a lucky accident, probably similar to countless other emergences of life on other planets. No, there is no particular purpose or meaning behind it all - why should there be? What right do we have to consider ourselves special? However, as an atheist, I consider all (well, most) life to be sacred (if I can use such a word). Atheists know that we only get one chance at life. This is it. This is all you get. No reincarnation, no heaven or hell, no second chances. You only get one go, and to mess it up or waste it is the most terrible thing.

Make the most of your brief span of awareness. Educate yourself so that you can see the wonders of the universe for what they are, without the fog of religious belief. Swim in the Indian Ocean. Watch the sunset at Uluru (Ayer's Rock). Tickle a baby. Climb a tree. Learn to unicyle. Massage your partner. Take up pottery. Gain pleasure from making other peoples' lives better. Some people live in appalling conditions, earning in a week what you might earn in one hour (if that). Support an orphanage.

Some theists seem to have this bizarre notion that atheists are sad, dreary, selfish people who only ever consider themselves, have no concern for anyone else and mope around all day wondering how they can get to Heaven without having to believe in Jesus and be nice to people. (Funny just how wrong some people can be, isn't it?)

I am often asked "Why bother? If life is a meaningless accident, with no ultimate goal or purpose, why not just kill yourself now? Why not even go on a killing spree and end the worthless lives of everybody else? What stops you ending it all?" To which I would reply - "Have you ever built a snowman?" After all, snowmen are ephemeral objects, soon to be melted in the sun. A snowman has no ultimate purpose or goal, and in a few weeks there will be no trace of it's ever existing. We build snowmen because all of us, theists and atheists, live here and now. In the context of our own brief mortal lives, we are able to enjoy this life and gain pleasure from ultimately pointless acts. It is fun to build a snowman, or climb a mountain, or watch the sunset, or go for a long cycle ride in the countryside. The purpose of these things is not "out there" somewhere, waiting to be achieved - the meaning is in what it means to ourselves. I am not overly concerned about some future fifty billion years from now, but I am concerned about the future of humanity here, now and for the generations that follow. That is the context of a mortal life, and that is why I "bother" to live and damn well have fun while I'm doing it.

There is no meaning to life itself. There is no purpose to the universe. You can, however, give life meaning through your actions. Make the world a better place for yourself, your contemporaries and your descendents. Atheists can, and often do, lead a full and enjoyable life. We know that this is all we get, and all that everybody else gets, so we do the best that we can for ourselves and others. It's no good praying for people dying in a third-world country - there's no God to help them, only people. If people don't do it, nobody else will. I am sickened whenever there is a major disaster in the world, and some politician or church leader says that the victims desperately need our prayers. No they don't. They need someone to go and dig them out of the rubble, comfort the bereaved, find out why the plane crashed, bring them food and medicine. Prayer is not going to do that - people are. There is an orphanage in Kenya, called the Diani Childrens Village. The kids there have no family at all, and live in, well... a hovel. Do they need prayers and Bibles, or do they need love, money, food, clothes and education?

As an atheist, I consider all life to be sacred. A life and a mind are terrible things to waste. Make the most of them while you can, and help others do the same. Is that such a Bad Thing?

[Couldn’t have said it better myself…. And I really liked the Snowman Response….]

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Forget robot rights, experts say, use them for public safety

The Guardian

Tuesday April 24 2007

Scientists have criticised a government report which advocated a debate on granting rights to super-intelligent robots in the future as "a distraction". They say the public should instead be consulted over the use of robots by the military and police, as carers for the elderly and as sex toys.

The robotics experts were commenting on a report published by the Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre in December. The authors of Robo-rights: Utopian dream or rise of the machines? wrote: "If artificial intelligence is achieved and widely deployed (or if they can reproduce and improve themselves) calls may be made for human rights to be extended to robots."

The idea of robots becoming so smart that they acquire a conscious sense of self has fascinated science fiction writers for generations. The recent films I, Robot and Bicentennial Man, both based on books by Isaac Asimov, dealt with the question of whether intelligent robots should enjoy human rights. In the first a policeman played by Will Smith tracks a robot called Sonny that has apparently gone against its programming to commit murder. In the second Andrew the robot embarks on the quest for equal rights. But the scientists said true robot intelligence is so far in the future that it should not be treated as anything more than science fiction. "It's really premature I think to discuss robot rights," said Owen Holland, a computer scientist and expert on machine consciousness at Essex University. "[This report] is certainly not based on science and it is not realistic."

Noel Sharkey, a roboticist at the University of Sheffield who is a regular contributor to the BBC's Robot Wars, agreed, but he said there were more immediate concerns. "The idea of machine consciousness and rights is ... a bit of a fairy tale as far as I'm concerned," he said. "My concern is about public safety. I think we need proper, informed, public debate about where we are going with robotics at the moment. We need to tell the public about what's going on in robotics and ask them what they want." Last year the South Korean military unveiled a robot border guard built by Samsung that can shoot targets up to 500 metres away. He said these could be programmed with a shoot-to-kill policy. The US, meanwhile, is on the way to achieving its goal of replacing one third of its ground vehicles with autonomous robots.

"It would be great if all the military were robots and they could fight each other, but that's not going to be the case," he said. "My biggest concern there is that it goes against the body bag politics. If you don't have body bags coming home, you can start a war much more easily." Once robots become more common in warfare, he predicted they would be used more widely in policing and surveillance; so far there has been very little serious and informed public debate on these issues. Offenders could, he suggested, be monitored at home by a guard robot and the streets could be patrolled by mobile robot CCTV. They could also be used to deal with riots and other civil disturbances, he predicted. "Imagine the miners' strike with robots armed with water cannon." By providing companionship and basic care and health monitoring for older people, robo-carers could look after the increasing numbers of elderly people. And he predicted that vibrating sex-robots would be available soon for those bored with blow-up dolls.

[Although it brings up some interesting ethical issues, the idea that we should be thinking of ‘robot rights’ is highly premature. We are, in my opinion, decades (at least) away from any kind of AI – Artificial Intelligence – comparable with our own. As some of the comments above point out what is of much more immediate interest is how the ever expanding use of robots in all walks of life needs to be monitored and controlled if necessary. We are already seeing the use of semi-autonomous robots on the battlefield and this can only increase. I don’t think that it’s too far fetched to see fully autonomous fighting machines before mid-century. Once that happens it won’t be long before robot police are patrolling our streets. It’s been a long time coming – accompanied by much undeserved hype – but it’s likely that within our children’s lifetimes robots will become a common sight on our streets. What we need to think about is what exactly we want them to be doing and how we go about restricting what they can and cannot do. Any discussion of Rights comes much later.]

Friday, November 09, 2007

Just Finished Reading: What is Good? – The Search for the Best Way to Live by A C Grayling

Now this was more like it. After my somewhat critical review of Life, Sex and Ideas – The Good Life Without God this particular volume by Professor Grayling fully lived up to my expectations. Told in a linear fashion the author outlined the various developments in thinking produced by what he called the three Enlightenments in Western history. These were the Classical Period, The Renaissance and what we more familiarly call The Enlightenment of the 18th Century. The focus of all of these sections – with a discussion of the Christian view sandwiched in between - is the question of how we can live a Good Life. Grayling outlines the views produced by thinkers in each of these periods and characterisers the Second and Third Enlightenments in particular as attempts to break away from the strictures of centuries of Religious thinking. As we enter the Modern Period the author discuses the crisis in Ethical thought that arose particularly after The Great War which we still addressing. Ending on a hopeful note Grayling points to the ever advancing front of scientific endeavour and, my personal favourite at the moment, the renewed interest in Virtue Ethics which I too feel holds great promise.

Told from a Secular Humanist point of view this was an easy and highly informative book to read. I already knew some of the highlights of Graylings discussion but he managed to turn me on to several authors I had up to this point gave little thought to including the Roman philosopher/politician Seneca. This book also confirmed in me, if such confirmation was necessary, that I am a natural born Stoic. It was a good feeling to have that finally settled. Well argued, well written and thoughtful I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who has ever pondered the question “How Should I live my Life?” Just don’t expect a list of Rules or Do’s and Don’ts. But do expect a good many hints and tips to get you on the road to your own personal Enlightenment.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Crying 'discrimination' harms churches message

From Ekklesia

Monday 19 March 2007

The UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia has said that “retreating into a persecution mentality” is unhelpful – and harms the churches’ message. The comment came in response to a new BBC survey which shows that up to a third of UK Christians feel they are discriminated against in public life because of their faith.

Ekklesia’s Jonathan Bartley, whose 2006 book Faith and Politics After Christendom first warned of a “negative” response among sections of the church to their gradual loss of official status, commented: “Some Christians do feel discriminated against, but Christians are also privileged – with 26 bishops in the house of Lords, an established church, tax breaks and blasphemy laws protecting them, for example.” He added: “Others will point out that Christians discriminate themselves. Many state-funded schools run by churches are selecting on the basis of people's faith. Churches have claimed opt-outs from equalities legislation. And their treatment of lesbian and gay people is seen as bigoted by many, inside and outside the churches.”

Bartley said that in a global context where minorities were under attack, and in the UK where some Muslims and Jews in the UK faced attacks and desecration of their cemeteries, talk of “persecution” by some Christian groups was inappropriate. He appeared on BBC1’s Heaven and Earth Show (18 March 2007), which commissioned the survey. “The reason a sizable minority of Christians, especially more conservative ones, are feeling ‘got at’ is because the historic privilege and influence of the churches is being eroded in the public sphere” added Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

“But this demonstrates how easy it has been, during the era of Christendom, for Christians to mistake their own power for the gospel message – which involves Jesus embodying God’s special concern for those at the margins, not demanding special treatment for religion,” he said. Ekklesia argues that loss of automatic privileges, the challenges of pluralism in public life, and the criticism churches face over discrimination in schools and services is “a historic opportunity for them to recover a vision of the Christian message as rooted in justice and equality. Self-interest and trying to grab power back is an unhelpful response – a counter-witness, even.” The think-tank has also warned about the dangers of "the politics of competitive grievance", where Christians, secularists, Muslims and others try to out-do each other with claims of discrimination, rather than finding positive ways of working together.

[What we are seeing, in the main, in the UK and the rest of Europe is not discrimination against Christians but both a reduction in their privileged status and, more importantly, a growing appreciation that their historic privileged status is being eroded. Christians and those of other faiths should be treated for what they are – just another special interest group, one that is in no way more privileged than any other just because of its belief system. Long may the decline in religions “special status” continue.]

Monday, November 05, 2007

Remember.


Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!


Traditionally the following verse was also sung, but it has fallen out of favour because of its content.


A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o' cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah hoorah!


Source: Wikipedia

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Cartoon Time.

Inspired by a recent posting over at The Sarcasm.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Lyotard and the Inhuman by Stuart Sim.

At 66 pages this was less of a book and more of a booklet outlining Jean-Francois Lyotards’s idea that we in the West are moving away from Humanism – of which he was a staunch critic – towards Inhumanism which he greatly feared. Lyotard proposed that the mixture of Capitalism, the bureaucratic passion for efficiency in all things, and our ever advancing technology will inevitably remove those aspects from us that make us Human and replace them with the Machine. He argued that it was the responsibility of philosophy to resist this move with every argument at its command. He particularly argued against developments in Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Life and the growing interest in Cyborg technology (the melding of man and machine).

Contrasted with this view Sim presented opposing ideas by feminists Donna Haraway and Sadie Plant who more favourably viewed Inhumanism as a liberating force that could overturn the old questions surrounding Gender and Gender relations. Cyborgs, they seemed to say, move beyond Gender making all previous thought on the subject obsolete.

I seem to be developing a ‘thing’ for 20th Century French philosophers at the moment. Maybe because they are so ‘out there’ compared to their Anglo-American counterparts. Though they are fairly difficult to read – hence why I’m attempting them so far in small chunks – they do represent a radical breath of fresh air in what can be a fairly stuffy discipline. This was a quick foray into some of Lyotard’s ideas which I suspect I will be following up by reading some of his original work. Recommended to all those who feel like expanding their minds without too much pain and effort. Part of the Postmodern Encounters series.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Despicable Species

No, not the majestic creature pictured above but the species that is pushing it to extinction. That would be us. Humans. Apparently there are now an estimated 1500 Indian Tigers in the wild. Some people are already speculating that this is too few to ensure that the species is viable. Others point to the resilience of Tiger populations in the past. What can’t be argued with is the fact that it is our greed for land and Tiger ‘products’ that is threatening to add these big cats to the growing list of creatures that we have eliminated from the Earths biosphere. How many bricks do we have to carelessly remove from the wall before whole eco-systems collapse? How long before we realise that we are not immune from the effects of the increasingly obvious species degradation? How long before we realise that we’re just another species that can become extinct too? Maybe we’re just too stupid a species to survive? At least those left behind will heave a huge sigh of relief when we go – if we leave anything behind us that is.