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Archive for April, 2007

The Future of Humanity according to Stephen Hawking

Saturday, April 28th, 2007

As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, the famous physicist (Black Holes) Stephen Hawking recently took off in a Boeing 727 that “roared over the Ocean and curved large parabolic arcs in the sky”, producing the effect of floating in zero-gravity, like being in space.

Before taking off he said life on Earth was “at the ever increasing risk” of being overcome by disaster, “such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers. The human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.”

Note the sudden global warming, which may be due to chaotic fluctuations, something to my knowledge often neglected in modelling. Chaotic fluctuations are determined by very small initial conditions and are largely unpredictable (though strictly deterministic). Let’s hope Stephen Hawking is wrong, and – if not – let’s hope we have sufficient time to get ready for space travel on a large scale.

On Aggression (The Instinct for Wars)

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

An article by Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald (April 25, 2007) “Why ‘never again’ will never work” suggested this post to me. Ross Gittins asks whether there could be a deeper, purely psychological explanation for wars and specifically for the war against Iraq (and not the supposed weapons of mass destruction etc. used as an excuse). He asks “Could it be humans are so warlike because of the way their minds work? That’s the novel thesis advanced by Professor Daniel Kahneman, of Princeton University, and Jonathan Renshon, of Harvard University….” The psychologist Kahneman is the founder of behavioural economics and a Nobel Prize winner.

In fact, the thesis is not new at all. Another Nobel Prize winner, Konrad Lorenz, one of the founders of ethology, the modern study of animal behaviour, advanced it over 40 years ago. I strongly recommend to read his popular and inspiringly written books on the subject, because they are even more relevant today than they were 40 years ago:

On Aggression (translated from the German Das Sogenannte Böse, 1963), and The Waning of Humaneness (Engl translation 1988, German 1983). In these two books, Lorenz describes how intraspecific aggression (an instinct for aggression) in various animal species can have effects that threaten the survival of a species. The same applies to humans. Humans, in their evolutionary history, have acquired aggressive instincts that may have had a survival value at the time, but are dangerous today. Nevertheless, Lorenz is (or pretends to be?) optimistic. He refers to “safety valves” that prevent negative effects due to aggression in various animal species, from which we can learn. A precondition for optimism is that mankind must be modest and realize that we are only part of nature and subject to its laws. (A note for evolutionary biologists: Lorenz bases many of the arguments on group selection, which may not be scientifically sound, but many of his conclusions concerning the survival of species are nevertheless correct).

Kahneman’s Nobel Prize winning insight was that humans do not possess the mental powers necessary for the rational calculations required by conventional economics.
Humans tend to make mental shortcuts that may lead to erroneous predictions, i.e., they are biased. When Kahneman and Renshon listed these biases, they found that all of them were on the hawkish side (one did not listen to advice given by doves, but by hawks).

These hawkish biases are of several kinds:

1) optimism bias: most people believe they are smarter than others (for politicians this means for example that they tend to take the advice of hawks who predict a favourable outcome of a war);

2) illusion of control: the amount of control people think they have over outcomes is generally exaggerated (does this ring a bell with the present war in Iraq?);

3) fundamental attribution error: other people’s motives are often misinterpreted; and it is completely ignored that other people may have the same bias towards us (does this ring a bell? Iran?);

4) reactive devaluation: something is considered worth less for the only reason that it is offered by the other side (i.e., a concession by some supposedly hostile person is devalued).

I suggest to consider these points when looking at one of the supposed rogue states, Iran. People should realize that Iran has a long history of suppression by neighbours and non-neighbours (Britain, Russia, in particular). In the seventies(?) an Iranian airliner was shot down by an American warship killing about 200 people. There was no war between the US and Iran, and (if I am correctly informed, I am open to correction) Iran did not even receive an apology from the US. Iraq’s invasion of Iran under Saddam Hussein (allegedly supported by the US) led to 2 million Iranian dead.  Iran cooperated with the US in getting rid of the Taliban, but never received a “reward”. President Bush declared Iran a state on the Axis of Evil, and there has been repeated talk of “regime change” in Iran. Earlier, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mossadeq, was overthrown with the involvement of the CIA, for the simple reason that he wanted to nationalize the oil industry. This led to the rise of the Shah and finally the present political system (by the West usually depreciatively referred to as the ayatollah “regime”). The Iranian government has declared that it has never attacked a neighbour over the last centuries, and this is correct. It has also declared that it has no intention of attacking anybody, including Israel. Iran is entitled by international law to use uranium for peaceful purposes (whether it is wise to pursue this idea under the present circumstances, is a different matter).

I believe that we should try to understand the motives of “the other side”, considering its history, and make political judgements accordingly.

The Dangers of Gaia

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

The Gaia (Greek Earth Goddess) hypothesis was proposed by James Lovelock and states that the Earth’s biotic and abiotic components form a single, interacting whole that can be thought of as a single organism. Living organisms have a regulatory effect on the environment, promoting the persistence of life. There are several variants of the hypothesis, some close to being straight forward absurd, others so vague and close to accepted scientific ideas that some people (e.g., Richard Dawkins in his Unweaving the Rainbow) have expressed the view that the hypothesis is superfluous. Dawkins, among others, believes that natural selection (in his view the only mechanism driving evolution, beside neutral drift) has no “foresight” necessary for a Gaia effect to occur, but is restricted to selecting genes on the basis of how they perform in the present environment. Lynn Margulis, on the other hand, well known for her studies demonstrating the symbiotic origin of several cell organelles (such as mitochondria) is a strong supporter of the Gaia hypothesis (although not its extreme version).

I do not wish to discuss the scientific merits of the hypothesis, but want to draw attention to its potential misuse.

An organism consists of many parts (cells, tissues, organs) that do not only interact but interact in such a way that the survival of the organism is guaranteed, by “self-correcting” (homeostatic) mechanisms (e.g., if the temperature in a homeothermic animal becomes too high, or if it is in danger of becoming too high, it is lowered by behavioural or physiological processes). Adherents of the Gaia hypothesis believe that the same must occur on Earth. The danger here of course is the false conclusion that – if Earth heats up, as presently apparently happening – :don’t worry, don’t do anything, Gaia will look after it.

Richard Dawkins, in his Unweaving the Rainbow, tells the story of an “ecologist”, who, at a conference sponsored by the British Open University, in which the possibility of extinction of the Dinosaurs by an asteroid impact was raised, said

This could not have happened, ‘Gaia would not have permitted it’.

Gaia may very well permit the extinction of life on Earth by any mechanism that gets out of hand, and this includes global warming. After all, even an organism can die if its homeostatic mechanisms fail: patients are known to have died of high fever. And that such mechanisms operate at the level of a superorganism comprising the entire Earth, postulated by the Gaia hypothesis, is at least doubtful. I certainly would not bet on it.

On the other hand, the Gaia concept may play a positive role. Let us look at the Earth and its ecosystems in their entirety as a sick patient that needs treatment: Do not only treat the parts that are obviously sick (such as rivers and forests), but get to the bottom of it and treat a sick economic and political system that has lead to the deterioration of the environment. But more on this perhaps in a future post.

Private Wars and the Christian Right

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

The Sydney Morning Herald (April 21-22, 2007) reports on the huge contribution private subcontractors make to the war in Iraq. It is no secret that private contractors are involved, but little publicity is given to the scale of their involvement. It casts further doubts on the legality of the war and how it has been conducted. It also illustrates the influence of the Christian Right in the US.

I quote from the Sydney Morning Herald:

“When Rumsfeld resigned last December, there were an estimated 100,000 private contractors in Iraq”.

Jeremy Scahill , in his book “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” writes “Contractors have provided the Bush Administration with political cover, allowing the Government to deploy private forces in a war zone free of public scrutiny, with the deaths, injuries and crimes of those forces shrouded in secrecy. The Administration in turn have shielded contractors from accountability, oversight and legal constraints. ‘We have over 200,000 troops in Iraq, and half of them aren’t being counted,’ says the Democrats’ Dennis Kucinich, a leading congressional critic of war contracting.”

Blackwater USA is such a mercenary company. “It was founded in 1996 by conservative Christian multimillionaire and ex-Navy SEAL, Erik Prince, the scion of a wealthy Michigan family whose generous political donations helped fuel the rise of the religious right and the Republican revolution in 1994…….. Prince, his family and his political allies poured money into the Republican campaign coffers….”

“Prince has expanded his headquarters …..in North Carolina, to 7000 acres (2800 hectares), making it the largest private military base, with 2300 personnel in nine countries and 20,000 other contractors at the ready”.

According to the Washington Post:

“On the afternoon of July 8, 2006, four private security guards rolled out of Baghdad’s green zone in an armoured security vehicle. The team leader,……., rode in the front passenger seat. He seemed in good mood. His vacation was to start the next day.

“I want to kill somebody today”, ….. said, according to the other three men in the vehicle. Before the day was over, the guards had been involved in three shooting incidents. In one, … allegedly fired into the windshield of a taxi for amusement.

The full story may never be known…”

Is this how future wars will be fought? Are private contractors being drilled for taking on the Iranians? Do the Geneva convention and other international treaties apply to such private armies? Apparently not, how otherwise could the “Administration in turn have shielded contractors from accountability, oversight and legal constraints”? Who pays for this billion Dollar business? Salaries of the contractors certainly are very high.

Advice to Travellers II (Life before Adam and Eve)

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

My advice to travellers series draws attention to localities and happenings around the world which you should avoid (see no. I) or visit (this one). In this post, you will see what we and all creatures on earth were like before Adam and Eve:

(Based on BBC News, 14.4.2007)

A new creationism museum is being built in Kentucky, in the middle of North America, within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the US population, and just 10 minutes from Cincinnati International Airport. That is why it was picked as the site for a new museum, due to open in a couple of months.

“It is the dream of Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, a Christian ministry that promotes the idea that the Biblical book of Genesis should be taken literally in describing the creation of the world, life and humans as carried out by God over a six-day period a few thousand years ago. He lectures or broadcasts almost daily and clearly has the charisma to raise $27m (£14m) for this ambitious museum.”

Apparently, “Tyrannosaurus rex and humans co-habited Earth
In one exhibit, on a rocky ledge, there is a pair of small theropods – young T. rex individuals, we’re told. And near to them (”hold onto your hat”, says Ken, anticipating our disbelief) there are two human children playing by a stream.”

“Most geologists would say humans and dinosaurs were separated by more than 60 million years. And those dinosaurs have very sharp teeth!

“So do bears”, says Ken, “but they eat nuts and berries! Remember, before the sin of Adam, the world was perfect. All creatures were vegetarian.” (bold by me). One of the dinosaurs lets out a rather contradictory roar.

Though the Bible does not mention them directly, Ken Ham thinks there is no reason to suppose that dinosaurs were not still around at the time of the flood.”

I believe the museum will be a roaring success and it is a must for everybody! You might meet a few illustrious people there!

Introducing Academic Reader

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

This is an extract from a post by Peter Rohde (my son), who is involved in developing this website:

The Academic Reader is a new web site that makes it easier to keep track of your scientific reading. Rather than going to multiple websites every day to keep up, we pull all the sources together in a single location, so you can keep track easily. Sources include the preprint arXiv, the Physical Review, and Nature, and many new sources will be added in the months to come, including sources outside physics.

US braces for global warring

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

Still any doubts about global warming? If so, read the extracts from “US braces for global warring”, the Sydney Morning Herald, April 10, 2007, below. Perhaps the best “security” response would be not to invest billions of dollars in new aircaft carriers and starwar systems, but in upgrading economies and social conditions in poorer countries. After all, the poorer countries contribute little or nothing to global warming.

Here are some extracts:

THE United States fears climate change could trigger new humanitarian crises and force countries to go to war over diminishing water and energy resources.

American politicians are so concerned about the threats posed by the effects of global warming, they are legislating to elevate it to an official defence issue, with the CIA and the Pentagon required to assess the national security implications of climate change.

Australia has also signalled its intention to broaden its treatment of the issue from one that is just environmental to one that draws on expertise from all arms of government, including defence and intelligence.

The US proposal, which its sponsors expect to pass through Congress with wide support, calls for the director of national intelligence to conduct the first-ever “national intelligence estimate” on global warming.
……….

The measure would also order the Pentagon to undertake a series of war games to determine how global climate change could affect US security, including “direct physical threats to the US posed by extreme weather events such as hurricanes”.

Experts say the increasing focus on global warming as a security issue could open new avenues of support for tougher efforts to limit greenhouse gases.

Terry Eagleton: Lunging Flailing Mispunching. The God Delusion of Richard Dawkins.

Friday, April 6th, 2007

I have commented on “Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion” in an earlier post. Considering the number of faithful in the various monotheistic religions, it is to be expected that his book will be violently opposed by many. We can only hope that it will not have the consequences which the Satanic Verses of Salmon Rushdie had. Here I present extracts from a review of Dawkins’ book by Terry Eagleton, John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at Manchester University. According to the Wikipedia Encyclopedia, “He began his career studying the literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. Then he switched to Marxist literary theory in the vein of Williams. More recently Eagleton has integrated cultural studies with more traditional literary theory. He was, during the 1960s, involved in the left-wing Catholic group Slant and authored a number of theological articles as well as a book Towards a New Left Theology. His most recent publications have suggested a renewed interest in theological themes. Another significant theoretical influence on Eagleton is psychoanalysis.” His latest book is How to Read a Poem. The review was published in the London Review of Books Vol. 28 No. 20, 19 October 2006, and is titled Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

Here are some extracts of the review. I leave judgement to the readers, but include some comments by me in parantheses and bold.

“God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need.” (I certainly always thought that a personal God in monotheistic religions is one who created the world and maintains it. If not, what then is the difference between pantheism and monotheism? I certainly would be very sympathetic to pantheistic views. Is, what Eagerton says here, really the view of the Pope and Catholicism, or is it the view perhaps of a small group of “leftwing” catholics? And is it really acceptable in theology to claim that “God does not in fact exist”? That seems to me atheism or perhaps better theological homeopathy: God is so diluted that she does not exist anymore.)

“God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.” (?????)

“Nor does he (Richard Dawkins) understand that because God is transcendent of us (which is another way of saying that he did not have to bring us about), he is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us. Dawkins’s God, by contrast, is Satanic. Satan (‘accuser’ in Hebrew) is the misrecognition of God as Big Daddy and punitive judge, and Dawkins’s God is precisely such a repulsive superego.”

“Dawkins thinks it odd that Christians don’t look eagerly forward to death, given that they will thereby be ushered into paradise. He does not see that Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply, which is why the martyr differs from the suicide.”

“The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough.

The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and opium of the people. It was, of course, Marx who coined that last phrase; but Marx, who in the same passage describes religion as the ‘heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions’, was rather more judicious and dialectical in his judgment on it than the lunging, flailing, mispunching Dawkins.”

“The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever.”

“On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.” (Are these horrors really due to science and technology, or are they the result of economic conditions, colonisation, perhaps religious misconceptions, etc.? Certainly one cannot blame the invention of fire for the burning of witches and the inquisition).

“He is like a man who equates socialism with the Gulag. Like the puritan and sex, Dawkins sees God everywhere, even where he is self-evidently absent. He thinks, for example, that the ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland would evaporate if religion did, which to someone like me, who lives there part of the time, betrays just how little he knows about it.” (Yes, I agree with this and pointed this out in my earlier post. Overemphasis on religion, ignoring economic, social and other aspects may not be helpful and sometimes even dangerous).

“These are not just the views of an enraged atheist. They are the opinions of a readily identifiable kind of English middle-class liberal rationalist. Reading Dawkins, who occasionally writes as though ‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness’ is a mighty funny way to describe a Grecian urn, one can be reasonably certain that he would not be Europe’s greatest enthusiast for Foucault, psychoanalysis, agitprop, Dadaism, anarchism or separatist feminism. All of these phenomena, one imagines, would be as distasteful to his brisk, bloodless rationality as the virgin birth. Yet one can of course be an atheist and a fervent fan of them all. His God-hating, then, is by no means simply the view of a scientist admirably cleansed of prejudice. It belongs to a specific cultural context. One would not expect to muster many votes for either anarchism or the virgin birth in North Oxford.” (I cannot comment on this, having no firsthand experience of the cultural context).

“There is a very English brand of common sense that believes mostly in what it can touch, weigh and taste, and The God Delusion springs from, among other places, that particular stable. At its most philistine and provincial, it makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann. The secular Ten Commandments that Dawkins commends to us, one of which advises us to enjoy our sex lives so long as they don’t damage others, are for the most part liberal platitudes. Dawkins quite rightly detests fundamentalists; but as far as I know his anti-religious diatribes have never been matched in his work by a critique of the global capitalism that generates the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humiliation that breed fundamentalism. Instead, as the obtuse media chatter has it, it’s all down to religion. (Yes, I agree in part: Dawkins has ignored the economic and social causes of much of the problems, which may often be more important than religion: see my earlier post).

“Dawkins tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. This is not only grotesquely false; it is also a device to outflank any more reflective kind of faith by implying that it belongs to the coterie and not to the mass. The huge numbers of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined above can thus be conveniently lumped with rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals. As far as such outrages go, however, The God Delusion does a very fine job indeed. The two most deadly texts on the planet, apart perhaps from Donald Rumsfeld’s emails, are the Bible and the Koran; and Dawkins, as one the best of liberals as well as one of the worst, has done a magnificent job over the years of speaking out against that particular strain of psychopathology known as fundamentalism, whether Texan or Taliban. He is right to repudiate the brand of mealy-mouthed liberalism which believes that one has to respect other people’s silly or obnoxious ideas just because they are other people’s.”

(In summary, I think that some of the criticism of Eagleton are quite justified, but some of the main points, such as, what or who is God, seem to me fairly obscure. As a scientist, I am more impressed by the logical and clear exposition of Richard Dawkins. And what about the many horrible events in history and now that were really entirely or largely due to religion? No word on these by Eagleton. – One main point made by Eagleton is that Dawkins is ignorant of much of Christian theology and nuances within it, and should therefore keep quiet about it. Does one really have to be a theologian to comment on the principles of a religion? If we accept Eagleton’s requirement, we would have to abolish all critical comments on anything except our own narrow field of expertise, i.e., leave everything to the experts. I believe this would be a disaster, because it would open the door to suppressing all opinions that are not considered to conform to what a self appointed “elite” thinks is true. We would probably still be in the dark ages, if a few dissidents had not established new versions of the “truth” against the “experts” of the time).