The Right to Die as a Human Right

Two commentators on the recent appeal to the Supreme Court over the right to die, Baroness Jane Campbell (former Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2006-2008) and Lord Carlile (Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords) present a stilted view of the situation. The position put forward by both is flawed, both through poor reasoning, and failing to focus on the individuals as rational and emotional beings who happen to be physically incapacitated.

In a stellar piece of fallacious reasoning Baroness Campbell said:

The main reason given for wishing to die is not wanting to become a burden, whether their family would see it that way or not. Against this background, the “quick-fix” of an assisted death appears attractive.

It is precisely because that is the majority view that we must continue to oppose it. There is no better evidence of the negativity with which terminal illness, chronic illness, and disability is viewed than that we might be better off dead.

Notice how in the first paragraph she speaks of the main reason for those wanting assisted death for themselves, but in the second paragraph, she states that the majority view must be opposed. So we must resist the majority view of those most directly affected by any such future law? I think she meant to say that it if the majority view of the able-bodied was to be pro-right to die, against the wishes of the incapacitated, that we must resist that. And she would be right, if that were the case, but, by her own words, that is not the case. If the majority of those that would be in the position to opt for the right to die are in favour – and I suspect that the majority of empathic individuals who are not personally affected by the issue would, likewise, be in favour of it – then it is a law that must be seriously looked at. Perhaps the Baroness would like to clarify her point (and cite her sources whilst she’s at it).

For some reason, the Baroness thinks that the individual that is suffering through a debilitating illness is somehow no longer able to make rational decisions based on their own empathy for the dilemma of their loved ones. Maybe, as an incapacitated person with a fierce desire to live, herself, she is unable to empathise with someone that does not have that drive, or who expresses other equally strong but still perfectly human drives. An able-bodied person makes decisions about what they will and won‘t do based, in part, upon the impact of those actions on the people around them. In the case of many of the terminally ill and incapacitated, this element of self-determination has been taken away from them, and the Baroness would seek to extend this by perpetuating the removal of this element of their legal personhood.

In a similar vein, after the ruling came down against the right to die, Lord Carlile said:

There are other people involved in these cases. The subject may wish to commit suicide, but his or her children may see things in a completely different way. They may value every minute of the rest of that person’s life, and so rights are not merely in the mind of the person, of the individual concerned, there are other people involved too, and we need to take a broader view than is sometimes advocated.

Why, if someone is of sound mind, is that person’s right to self-determination removed, and instead ceded to their relatives? We are concerned about the dehumanising of the terminally ill and incapacitated, but here we have rendered them down to the legal status of chattel. So in trying to offer dignity (which is, I assume, the goal of Campbell and Carlile), instead we offer ignominy. Why can the relatives not “value every minute” of a finite and determined time with their loved one? That is something that the families of cancer patients are not afforded. Why is the family’s emotional pain allowed to trump the mental, physical, and emotional pain of the individual?

Indeed both Campbell and Carlile seem to be treating incapacitated humans as merely physical beings, due to their physical condition, and not thinking of their emotional well-being at all. This is best illustrated by another comment from Lord Carlile:

There are very few people who die in agony. Some do, but there are very few people who die in agony as a result of an inability to treat pain.

When did the physical become the sole determiner of an individual’s quality of life? What if a previously very physical person is suddenly incapable of movement? Daniel James, the rugby player who took his life after becoming paralysed from the chest down, felt that he could not thrive after the loss of physical movement. Another rugby player, Matt Hampson, saw his paralysis as a challenge. Can anyone say which of these two men is “right”? The only ‘right’ here, is the one of self-determination.

On this matter Baroness Campbell also sets up a false dichotomy by saying:

We help those with suicidal thoughts look for positives in their lives. I believe chronically ill and disabled people deserve that “right”, to be helped by us all to live their lives.

Indeed. Most calls for right to die legislation also call for appropriate counselling and that checks and balances be in place to minimise abuse. Counselling is, or is called upon to be, a mandatory part of the process for gender re-assignment, and even relatively minor plastic surgery. Campbell points to the media exposés of abuse in care homes as potentially indicative of the way that the incapacitated are treated, but then counselling, properly undertaken, would uncover these problems, as well as any duress associated with it.

In conclusion, Baroness Campbell said:

I didn’t want Tony Nicklinson to die and I don’t want Paul Lamb to die. I respect and value them. I want them to carry on disagreeing with me for as long as possible.

Why, Baroness Campbell, does what you want have any bearing on what they do? It is called self-determination for a reason. You can determine your course for yourself, something which you have shown yourself amply capable of doing, but these brave individuals should be allowed the same right for themselves. If you respect them, you should respect their decision, even if you disagree with it.

To conclude, Baroness Campbell is understandably nervous about right to die legislation that is too broad, too permissive, too open to abuse. So, I imagine, is anyone who is pro-right to die. Her position, however admirable for its motives, is not helped by misrepresenting her own facts and by using fallacious reasoning. And it is fatally undermined by Lord Carlile displaying a startling lack of empathy. The right to die is a logical extension of the right to self-determination. Counselling, in an effort to determine the state of mind from within which the decision is being made, is clearly a necessity, and such checks and balances can be put in place, through consultation, in the writing into law of the right to die. The writing of such a law is the context in which these discussions should be had, not here, not now, actively stopping any such law from being formulated in the first instance.

Religious thinking is not the same as religious thought…

The main problem with religions (and this is pretty much all religions), is that the words of a few have been painted as revealed (God-given) wisdom, and as such are unimpeachable. If they were wrong (and they were), any given religion will never improve in any appreciable way until the founding utterances are discarded, and the fallibility of the utterers conceded. But because everyone in positions of power within the religion has a vested interested in keeping the enterprise going, no such acceptance of what is patently obvious to anyone outside the fold will occur. Hence, I have more time for the clergy that have joined The Clergy Project, than I do for sophisticated followers that hope against hope (aka pray) for a change in ‘the system.’

Apart from anything, the concept of “revealed wisdom” is patently a misunderstanding of what we now call intuition, and that we know is the product of non-conscious (which is to say evolutionarily old) processes. Intuition is the product of available (crystallised) knowledge, deeply processed, as such these intuitions can only be the product of knowledge as it was at the time. For example, many Muslims point out the embryology of the Qur’an as being ahead of its time, but not only is the embryology wrong, it’s also similar to the work of Galen (b. 129CE), who was based in Pergamon (modern Bergama) Turkey, despite his Roman origins, centuries before Mohammed.

There’s no doubt that religious people have occasionally made inspired guesses, for example, Maimonides, in describing the making of the world in Judaic terms, came very close to describing the Big Bang as starting as a mustard seed and spreading out. But that is clearly a poetic device that almost captures the truth of the Big Bang whilst actually describing Genesis. A Christian example is the work on memory by St Augustine, which just last year was noted for being highly prescient with regard to modern neuroscience in regard to memory and mental time-travel (links below).

It surely can’t escape anyone’s notice that followers of any given religion can point out the flaws of other religions, but often fail to see those same flaws in their own faith. Some, a very few, can see the flaws in their own religious organisation and the way in which it administers doctrine, but abide, nevertheless. The issue is not the mode of thought, per sé, the issue is the focus of that thought – if a religiously inclined thinker is open-minded about science, they will be a valuable asset to any committee on scientific ethics. But if a religiously inclined thinker applies that same mode of thought, with archaic beliefs about the world as its base (as many of the most outspoken religious individuals are inclined to do), then one can only expect archaic (and occasionally post-archaic, but certainly not modern) outcomes.

http://www.mdpi.com/2076-328X/3/1/21
http://www.mdpi.com/2076-328X/3/2/232/pdf

There IS such a thing as a Good Atheist…

In response to Rick Henderson ‘Why There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist,’ and quoting him to make my responses clearer:

“A worldview is your view of everything inside (and possibly outside) the universe: truth, religion, beauty, war, morality and Nickleback—everything.”

Well, strictly speaking a worldview is one’s view of the world, not the universe. One’s view of the universe is epistemology and ontology. If you include truth, beauty and morality we’re then also getting into aesthetics and ethics… Also, it’s spelt ‘Nickelback.’

“While some want to state atheism simply as a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it.”

Only by inference. The word atheist, as I’m sure you know, Pastor Rick, is made up of the prefix ‘a-,’ meaning ‘without,’ and ‘theos,’ meaning ‘god.’ A lack of belief in any god does imply some other things, but it doesn’t state them. Because you’ve focused on ‘atheism’ and not ‘agnosticism’, we’re only talking about belief, not knowledge. Which is interesting, because most atheists are agnostic (no claim to knowledge), but any theist who is claiming knowledge is either lying or deluded. Please, do not take offense, I’m not saying that experience of God or the Holy Spirit doesn’t underpin your belief, I’m just pointing out that, just as eyewitness testimony is the least dependable of testimonies, so personal experience is the most open to bias, misunderstanding and mistake.

“1. The universe is purely material.  It is strictly natural and there is no such thing as the supernatural, i.e. god or spiritual forces.”

It’s a curiosity of our language, the English language, that which has only ever existed under the auspices of Christianity, that we refer to things that we implicitly believe to be the case, that which we believe to be most important, with a root word. Modifications to that root are achieved with prefixes and suffixes, and imply a modification of the norm. We have the word ‘ruthless,’ for example, where the root-word ‘ruth’ has fallen into obsolescence, but we know that because ‘ruthless’ means ‘having no compassion or pity’ that ‘ruth’ must mean ‘compassion or pity.’ It’s a shame that ‘ruth’ has fallen into disuse. The words ‘physics’ and ‘natural,’ however, have not. They have meanings that we all implicitly take to be the case. It is ‘metaphysics’ and ‘supernatural’ that extend these words beyond their intended meaning and into the realm of thinking about thinking without reference to sensibility.

“2. The universe is scientific.  It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.”

Indeed. See above, with regard to physics vs. metaphysics.

“3. The universe is impersonal.  It does not a have consciousness nor will, neither is it guided by a consciousness or will.”

Indeed, and even Christians have to come to terms with this. Does describing great good fortune as ‘God’s will’, and great misfortune as ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways’ make a difference? Does putting a face on it make it any more personal? Really? Given the grossly solipsistic nature of such thinking, it is also a million miles from the humility that your Bible contradictorily demands.

“Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless.”

The universe IS meaningless. Just because YOU believe in a God, and use that to make the universe meaningful doesn’t stop the universe from being meaningless, but it does mean that you have managed to create meaning in a meaningless universe. We atheists just choose to create our meaning in different ways.

“A tree falls.  A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery.  A dog barks.  A man is killed for not espousing the national religion.  These are all actions that can be known and explained, but never given any meaning or value.”

Meaning is purely interpretation. Interpretation is personal, by definition. We are all persons. Ipso facto, everything has meaning, or not, as we see fit.

“A tree falls.”

Meaningless, unless it happens to fall on your car, or on the mother bear of a cub you then rescue. Then it has meaning.

“A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery.“

If you’ll pardon the tasteless pun, this is pregnant with meaning. A young girl has had her body-autonomy returned to her. As a fellow human nothing has more meaning. How do you, as a Christian, reconcile the belief that the lack of a jealous God changes this fact?

“A dog barks.”

That’s a curious incident, isn’t it? And if the dog barks due to your house being broken into? Meaning.

“A man is killed for not espousing the national religion.”

A sad comment on the divisiveness of religion… one of which you’re espousing.

“A good atheist, that is a consistent atheist, recognizes this dilemma.”

I’ve known many a Christian to be unhappy at being told by an atheist (i.e. me) what makes a good Christian. Like when I point out that failing to follow the teachings of Christ makes the word ‘Christian’ meaningless. I suppose I should take consolation in you allowing the words ‘good’ and ’atheist’ to appear in the same sentence

“His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality.”

False dichotomies.

Objective meaning is that which exists independently of us, but without us there’s no-one to give it meaning. Unless you allow for extra-terrestrials, in which case they’ll give it their meaning… which is still not objective, because then it’s their subjective meaning. You COULD (and indeed I would) argue that there IS an objective reality for us to discover, and it will be some combination of all of our perceptions.

Objective morality on the other hand, is an absurdity. Morality is, by definition, ‘duty, obligation and principles of conduct’[1] which speaks of behaviour between one human and another, and as such is subjective. The only claim to moral objectivity is the de facto objective morality predicated on the fact that we humans are more similar than we are different.

“Thus, calling him good in the moral sense is nonsensical.”

You had to ruin it, didn’t you?

“There is no morally good atheist because there really is no objective morality.”

Yet theocracies are collapsing under their own weight, the US included (given the Conservative Christian hand in the recent shutdown and the massive impact this had on the poorest in the US, this is hard to ignore). The most secular nations regularly lead the standard of living polls and studies (e.g. Inglehart, Foa, Peterson & Welzel, 2008[2]. Paul, 2009[3], and even Forbes([4]) placed the US (the most religious Western Nation) as the 11th happiest place to live, behind Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (amongst the most secular Western Nations).

Let’s be explicit, the US fares poorly because they trail behind the rest of industrialised nations in homicide, incarceration, juvenile (not just infant) and adult mortality (lifespans are actually shortening in parts of the Bible belt), gonorrhea, syphilis, abortion, teen pregnancy, divorce, income disparity, poverty, long work hours, and resource exploitation, they only lead in being the most religious.[5]

“At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.”

Indeed, which is why we should all be clinging to it for dear life rather than using it as a yardstick by which to beat each other. The moral hypocrisy of the US being the self-appointed world-police when their own house is in such disarray (as outline above) should be pause for thought, at the very least.

“For those of you who think you’re about to light up this supposed straw man and raze me to the ground, consider the following”

Indeed, it is a strawman, and in quoting the scientists that you do, you make the same mistake that Sam Harris made in ‘The Moral Landscape’ – science tells us what to value, not how to value it. The how is a product of honest interpersonal communication.

“Based on the non-negotiable premises of atheism these are the only logical conclusions.”

Please pardon me if I offend your sensibilities with this answer: Bullshit!

“All the atheists I’ve known personally and from afar live as if there is objective meaning and morality.  How is this explained?”

As mentioned above, “The only claim to moral objectivity is the de facto objective morality predicated on the fact that we humans are more similar than we are different.” As such, despite our differences, more unites us than separates us, on almost any metric you care to choose.

“In a Hail Mary like attempt to reconcile the inescapability of objective morality and their assurances of atheism, 2 possible answers are launched.”

Sorry, but your assertion of the “inescapability of objective morality” is dismissed with the same level of evidence as it was asserted. Atheism at least is assured by the fact that of the (as many as) 28,000,000 gods[6] that man has ever dreamt up, we disbelieve in 100% of them – monotheism is a rounding error of 0.000036%.

No? OK, which of the 41,000 Christian denominations (Pew Forum[7]) are correct? Some of them say that belief in any other denomination is punishable by hellfire. Are they right? How do you know? Now that is a Hail Mary, and then some.

“1.  Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution.”

Correct. Dogs, elephants, and chimpanzees exhibit moral behaviour (De Waal, 2013[8]), and so do we, for the most part.

“So, compassion for the dying would be immoral and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral.”

Interesting that ‘compassion’ only turns up 41 times in the Bible, but ‘kill’, ‘killed’, and ‘killing’ appears 198 times[9]. Also, ‘destroy’ appears 261 times, and ‘destruction’ 94 times. It speaks poorly of your fellow Christian’s if they believe that they need to feel that they are being watched in order to behave. Do I have to bring up the endemic use of porn in the Bible belt, the relative lack of atheists in US prisons, etc., etc., etc.? Both of which (and more) put lie to the idea that people feel they are being watched and/or that this makes them better behaved.

“Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children. Morality in this view can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans.  It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it’s always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.”

If we had pre-frontal cortexes the size of chimpanzees or dolphins, then yes, maybe some of this might be plausible… but even then, I doubt it. As we have moved beyond the first level moral reasoning you’re talking about (indeed, some of your examples don’t even make it up to the level of morality, let alone second order moral reasoning).

Let’s use your example to show how wrong you are. A woman birthing a large number of children is against her self interest as she won’t be able to raise them all to the point where they can fend for themselves without putting them all at risk at least some of the time. As you said “actions that are helpful to make more fit humans,” as such, women’s education must be a priority, and an emotionally traumatised multiple-rape victim is not likely to be a fit mother without a lot of support. Also, when do I point out that it is religious families that tend to be largest, and secular families that tend to err on the side of not unduly burdening the planet?

“Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness.  If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible.  Because morality is the construct of a social group it cannot extend farther than a society’s borders nor endure longer than a society’s existence.”

Oh, really? What about the successful societies scale or the happiest countries polls cited earlier? The societies may make the rules, but the individuals that live in those societies are the barometers. We are more alike than we are different – significant differences in lifestyle require justification.

“Furthermore, within our own society, the most immoral are not merely the ones who transgress our code, but the ones who intend to change it. This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral, that is until they become the majority and institute change.”

No. By humanist standards, which most atheists tend towards as it is naturalistic morality, something is only immoral if it causes harm or transgresses fairness. A consensual act between consenting adults causes no-one harm, or only causes consensual harm, as such, it is the choice of the individuals engaging in the act/relationship as to whether they partake. As such, people standing up for this are moral, people standing against it are immoral. End of.

“Then, I suppose they become moral and traditionalist become immoral.”

Nope, religious traditionalists are immoral, stuck as they are with the anachronistic beliefs of 2000 years ago, but humanist traditionalists are not, as illustrated above.

“But it’s the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.”

No. As illustrated above, you’re approaching the mathematics of morality incorrectly. The content breaks down to harm or fairness, and then numbers of people affected. It’s actually (mostly) that simple.

“So this view of morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill those who don’t affirm a national religion.”

In all three cases: harm and fairness. A child, diseased or not, can still be harmed, and the fact of disease does not change the calculus in a discussion about fairness. Rape does harm, and body-autonomy is a way of judging fairness – her body, her choice. Killing someone for an idea, no matter how absurd, is always wrong, because it harms the individual who needs educating away from their bad ideas. If they are beyond education, or their ideas so heinous, then the state is harmed by sinking down to their level.

“It only provides a motivation for continuing the delusion of objective morality.”

The religious delusion of objective morality. Atheists don’t believe in objective morality, according to your own definitions, earlier in your piece.

“2.  Morality is logical.”

Morality is logical, but most human thinking on this matter is post hoc reasoning, but moral decisions are almost invariably made in the heat of the moment using our internal pre-conscious calculators, aka emotions. This is the stuff of morality and ethics debates, not the stuff of daily moral decision-making in the real world.

“All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views.”

That’s mostly accurate, though I can certainly see how the moves to have chimps, bonobos and dolphins included as conscious creatures that are also moral beings might have some weight.

“The strict framework of atheism does not allow for those starting points.”

Strictly speaking atheism has nothing to say on the matter. Atheism is just the lack of belief in a god, and as such allows for placing the ‘brotherhood of man’ at the focus of our moral thinking.

“So any person arguing for 1 or 2 would not be a good atheist. That is, he lives in contradiction to the mandates of his worldview.”

Incorrect, both because of the misunderstanding of what atheism is, versus what atheism implies, and because of the arguments supplied to both 1 & 2.

“Intelligent people ask serious questions.  Serious questions deserve serious answers.  There are few questions more serious than the one I’m asking.  How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true?  If a worldview can’t answer this question it doesn’t deserve you.”

Neither objective meaning, nor objective morality are true, as has been repeatedly pointed out. Atheism isn’t a worldview, it is a position on a single question.

“One sign that your worldview may be a crutch is that it has to appeal to an answer outside itself—becoming self-contradictory, unable to reasonably account for the question.  Any atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism which he contends is true.”

Indeed. Religions requires articles of faith, and a personal morality to cherry-pick the best bits. Christianity requires God to make ideas about human interactions, i.e. an arbiter from outside. Why not skip the unnecessary step and engage in moral philosophy without recourse to ancient books and imaginary Gods?

“If your worldview can’t makes sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality)—it’s not worth your allegiance.  This new reality may launch you onto a journey of reluctant discovery.  Whoever you are. Wherever you are.  Whatever you believe.  You deserve a foundation that is strong enough to carry the values that carry you.”

Just be cause you keep saying that objective morality is true, doesn’t make it true, and as no rational Westerner believes in genocide, slavery, the beating of their children, or the subordination of women (all of which the Bible supports and codifies) the Bible is, as you say, not worth your allegiance.

Can you be sure you know which way is up when you read the Bible?:

2 Samuel 24:1 And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.

1 Chronicles 21:1 And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.


[1] Blackburn, S. (2008). Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press; pp. 240

[2] Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C. & Welzel, C. (2008) Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness: A Global Perspective (1981–2007), (http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/wvs/articles/folder_published/article_base_122/files/RisingHappinessPPS.pdf)

[3] Paul, G. (2009). The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions. Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 398-441.

[8] De Waal, F. (2013) The Bonobo and the Atheist.. London: W. W. Norton.

Too much…

My problem, well, one of my problems, is that there’s too much. Not of me, although that, too. No, there’s too much that I’m interested in. Too much that I’m not good enough at to make a living, but interested in. Interested enough, to know a bit more than the average man on the street, but not interested enough to make it my life’s work, or even a passionate hobby. Like this blog, and its evidence of sporadic writing, despite intending to write at least weekly. There’s too much to write about, so I write (almost) nothing.

I used to DJ. I was pretty good. But I love so much music, so much, that I was trying to keep up-to-date with not only the stuff I was playing (pop and retro), but everything else that I liked; from acid jazz to deep house, from psychedelic rock to death metal. Too much. So now I don’t DJ.

When something becomes too much it becomes a source of procrastination. Either I will immerse myself in it, and lose any ability to see clearly that the immersion is counter to my ability to get on with other things, or I will avoid the very thing I love because there’s too much of it and not enough of me, and that asymmetry is aversive.

It’s all too much, and I am not enough, yet I am too much, and it is not enough, and the asymmetry is aversive.

Effective Observation…

It’s well known that the act of observation affects that which is observed. In physics it’s called the observer effect, and it can be demonstrated in most other areas of existence – things that happen in physics have a habit of being the deep patterns that philosophy and religion are always looking for. Not so much the grand unified theory of physics, but the commonplace, everyday theories of daily life.

Having noticed such a deep physical principle in life, it has historically been tempting to extend such thoughts into metaphysics, whether the mundane, everyday metaphysics of ‘A watched pot never boils,’ or the more exotic paradoxes of Zeno. Of course, a watched pot will eventually boil, but it seems to take longer than if you go about preparing the ingredients for the forthcoming meal for which the pot is being boiled in the first place.

Even though the idiom ‘a watched pot never boils’ is momentarily arresting, and even intuitively true, to an extent, it is likewise intuitively not true. We’re quite capable of holding these two contradictory interpretations of something without ever really experiencing a contradiction. This is probably because the hyperbole of ‘never’ speaks to our felt experience of mild exasperation, but few people are likely to suggest that such a statement is actually true. So it’s strange that Zeno’s paradoxes, which speak to the same basic effect, took so much longer to unravel.

Zeno’s ‘Achilles and the Tortoise’ paradox portrays Achilles giving the Tortoise a head start in a foot race. It takes Achilles a certain amount of time to cover the distance of the head start, in which time the Tortoise has covered some small distance. It takes Achilles a lesser amount of time to cover this distance, in which time, of course, the Tortoise has covered yet more ground. The question being: can Achilles ever pass the Tortoise? The answer is of course yes, but one can, and many people did, get sidetracked into an infinite loop of shorter and shorter distances that you can mentally conjure up and that Achilles had to therefore run, and the Tortoise was forever in the lead.

So why, if you explain the “paradox,” can most people say that of course Achilles will pass the Tortoise, even if they can’t provide the mathematical proof as to the distance covered and the time elapsed? Well, the intuitive correct answer was never the point – explaining why the formulation of the paradox is wrong, was. Just as we know that the watched pot does indeed boil… eventually.

If you make the act of measurement as real as the race, for example, if you had a particularly large and obstructive individual measuring the distances, and remaining permanently in the way of Achilles, then, indeed, the act of measurement has affected that which is being measured and Achilles may well never pass the Tortoise, or will only do so after bundling the official measurer into the bushes, which will serve to delay Achilles’ passing the Tortoise, and give no clear measurement of when and where this occurred.

The problem is that we can virtualise the problem in mental space and mental time, but whilst our brain can do this, as with many things that our brain does that seem flawless to us, as observers of our own mental phenomena, there are in fact flaws. A very large part of our brain is given over to visual processing, and so our virtualisations of the visual aspects of this puzzle are quite acceptable to us. But we’re not quite so good with time, which is fairly important to solving the puzzle. We’ve established that the mere fact of doing something whilst waiting for the pot to boil seems to make the pot boil faster. Of course, it doesn’t boil faster, we are merely less aware of the intervening time. If space and time become detached in consideration of a ‘real world’ problem, the chances seem good that we won’t come up with a ‘real world’ answer.

The so-called paradox seems to rely on a dissociation of the elements. We can virtualise all of the elements in our minds, but it’s less easy to maintain an accurate relationship between these constituent elements. Indeed, part of the difficulty with the problem is that the third ‘protagonist’ is never mentioned, merely implied – but it is pivotal to the story – the space in which the race takes place, and the behaviour of time between the start of the race and the point at which Achilles passes the Tortoise; in other words, context. We intuitively know that the race is set in our time and approximate space, but we ignore the attendant properties of local time and space in focusing on Achilles and the Tortoise. Further, it takes as much mental time to contemplate each key point in the race (when Achilles reaches a point that the Tortoise was measured as being at), despite the increasing rapidity with which those points would be generated. Ultimately, as the story purportedly takes place in real world space (and time) the moment the distance between Achilles and the Tortoise is less than one Achilles-sized stride the mental gymnastics of measuring is no longer necessary, unless you want to know exactly when, to the micrometer, Achilles passes the Tortoise, and that’s what mathematics is for.

A more modern paradox of similar type is Thomson’s Lamp. Here the idea is that at the start of the story the lamp is on. After one second it is turned off. After a further one half of a second it is turned back on. After a quarter of a second has elapsed it is turned off. And so on, and so on. After each period of time has elapsed, being half that of the time that elapsed in the previous condition, the lamp is switched to the opposite position. The questions are, then: Is the lamp switch on or off at exactly two minutes? And would this be different if the lamp had started in the ‘off’ position?

As with Achilles and the Tortoise, we can imagine the time halving and halving, and with each halving the lamp switching, but switching itself takes time, so as soon as the time between switches is less than the time taken to switch, the question becomes redundant. This is true, even if the switching is carried out by a superfast computer, we just end up dealing with smaller increments of time. Some period of time elapses in the act of switching, so once the measured time is less than that time, the question becomes redundant. Further, once our ability to measure the increment of time has been surpassed the commonsense mathematical attitude is to round up to two.

Yes, we can contemplate the foot race or the lamp switching continuing on into some kind of infinity, but we can only do so by shedding some of the elements of the story. The deeper into these paradoxes we go the less the elements that make up Achilles, the Tortoise, and the Racetrack, or the lamp, with its bulb and switching device, are present, and the more they are merely labels divested of their elements. This is not our fault, this is how things that we label as a single thing are made up in our minds; by their constituent elements. These elements may have labels, themselves, but the key point here is that whilst we’re focusing on the label of ‘Achilles’, ‘Tortoise’ or ‘Racetrack’, we’re bad at maintaining all of the embedded elements that those labels imply, so the deeper we go into the paradox the more meaningless the labels ‘Achilles’, ‘Tortoise’ and ‘Racetrack’ become – in much the same way that they will lose meaning if I continue to use the words ‘Achilles’, ‘Tortoise’ and ‘Racetrack’ at the current rate.

So we can manipulate objects and constituent elements in our minds. Indeed this is the very virtualising process that our minds are most useful for, and that which underwrites our success on this planet. At some point, when manipulating virtualised objects with embedded characteristics, we end up manipulating only the labels, or at least not the full complexity of the embedded elements implied by the label, and thus not really the objects that those labels represent.

I would submit that this is exactly how actual physics lead to metaphysics, but it’s also why so many metaphysicians are leaping on to the quantum physics bandwagon – the actual abstraction into the counter-intuitive that is quantum physics, at a certain level of abstraction, does seem like the intuitive abstraction from the ‘real world’ that is metaphysics. Quantum physics starts, to all intents and purposes at the microscopic (sub-atomic) level, with known and established labels for the particles under consideration. Metaphysics starts at the macroscopic and gets to the faux quantum by divesting real world facts of the embedded elements of context and descends into actual absurdity rather than mere counter-intuition.

Truth vs. Reality

Truth is a label, its opposite label is falsehood. Truth and falsehood are the products of language and the intent with which it is deployed. A falsehood is one thing, in the minds of many of those who search for ‘truth’, but a falsehood is achieved in a number of ways. A falsehood can either be a mistaken depiction of reality, or an intentional mischaracterisation of reality, and even these can be drilled down to yet more basic levels, at times indistinguishable from each other (more on that later).

A mistaken depiction of reality is not a lie, it is a mistaken depiction of reality – for it to be a lie it must be intentionally misleading. But even mistaken depictions of reality have potential value, even as claims to ‘the truth’ may have no value whatsoever, in a given circumstance. This is utilitarianism of a sort. At issue is the admixture of elements in a given statement, and where those elements come from. The provenance, if you will. Let’s start with a certain type of provenance, one that, more often than not, leads individuals to falsehoods of the ‘mischaracterisation of reality’ variety.

An individual that uncritically takes on the opinions of another individual, usually some kind of authority figure (no comment, here, as to the basis of that authority), may well hold the given statement as true. The most obvious example is the child that takes on the opinion of the parent – all children do this, at least for a time. It is necessary. Such opinions make up the environment in which the child lives, so it has truth-value, albeit that it may not be true. The child takes that truth out into the world, and if it maintains its value, then it becomes ‘a truth’ (even though it may be different from reality).

To be clear, ‘world’ is a comparative term – ‘society’ might be more correct, even though the world is made up of both society, and societies, cultures and sub-cultures. This is somewhat the point. A hand-me-down ‘truth’ maintains value depending on how far the holder of that ‘truth’ strays from the culture in which that ‘truth’ is ‘true.’ A home-schooled child in a gated community is not going to crash-test such a ‘truth’ as rigorously as a child in a multi-cultural community with ready access to the Internet.

There are adults that maintain ‘truths’ in this manner; indeed most adults still have ‘truths’ handed down from their parents that have not had the opportunity to be crash-tested in the ‘real’ world (more on that shortly). But there are adults that, like lost children, move from authority figure to authority figure harvesting ‘truths.’ (It would be right to call these ‘truths’ opinions in most contexts, but as a ‘truth’ is ‘true’ by virtue of its ‘truth value’ let us maintain this nomenclature.) The issue with such ‘truths’ is that they are handed down without an audit-trail of constituent and contributory ‘truths’. They are encapsulated pearls of ‘wisdom,’ ‘impervious bubbles of truth’. Impervious because, with no foundation, they can float above any foundational beliefs, and they contain no support in the individual’s thinking processes that would crumble under concerted attacks thereon. They can harmlessly bounce off each other, even (and maybe especially) when these bubbles are contradictory, as their deployment is often situationally specific, and as such, these ‘truths’ seldom come into contact with each other.

It would be easy to mock such an individual for such shallowness, and seemingly catastrophic stupidity. Now, where do your reactions and intuitions come from? There is a large part of the brain that we seldom have direct access to, but from which ‘truths’ bubble up. These are everything from the positive-sounding ‘intuition’ to the negative-sounding ‘stereotype,’ though there is no major difference between these two names for approximately the same thing. These are ‘truths’ that bubble up from our sub-conscious (not ‘the’ subconscious, but our sub-conscious, everything beneath the level of consciousness), and these ‘truths’ come to us without an audit-trail of constituent and contributory ‘truths’.

Of course, some of us are more inclined than others to subject such ‘truths’ to scrutiny. We may apologise for words reactively said in anger (‘our truth’), but that doesn’t mean that we won’t say exactly the same thing the next time the right combination of buttons is pushed. Then again, we may consciously fail to tell ‘the truth’ because of the embarrassing position we’ve been put in by ‘a truth.’ They are ‘our truths’, our prejudices, one might even say, ‘our reality.’

No one can lay claim to ‘the truth.’ Everyone can lay claim to ‘a truth.’ The value of these ‘truths’ is in their utility – but only in the first instance – and it is the first instance that a great many people remain focused on. Much more importantly, the value of these ‘truths’ lies in one’s relationship with the source of such ‘truths,’ and how many degrees of separation there are between oneself and reality, whatever that may be, in truth.

Intense Pressure on Carbon Costs?

With the release of the fifth assessment report by the IPCC, and more specifically the Summary for Policy Makers (brilliant idea), it seems like something nice and topical to comment on. I have not, as of yet, read the summary (that comes later), I want to comment on the responses to climate change in a more general sense, starting with climate change denialism.

Even if there is anything to the position that humanity is not responsible for the increase, should we not still work to minimise the negative effects? OK, so our carbon emissions aren’t problematic (despite the massive release of carbon back into the atmosphere from fossil fuels), but carbon is increasing in the atmosphere, and the earth is warming, should we still do nothing just because it’s not our fault?

This position can be summed up best as follow:

No single individual is at fault, obviously, and that is increasingly the case. The human race quadrupled in size over the course of the 20th century, mostly due to the massive growth in live births and increases in longevity. Unfortunately the vast majority of those living individuals (in the industrialised world at least) would rather be comfortable in the now, than worry about anyone else’s discomfort in the future (even their own, ironically).

Those comforts (and indeed profit margins) are bought, one way or another, with electricity, whether from the national grid, or individual generators (stationary, two-, four- or more-wheeled varieties). Comforts are also things we fall back on when times are hard. And times are hard.

What makes times hard? There’s the financial crisis, of course, a catastrophe also predicated on a refusal to take responsibility for the knock-on effect of action. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder how many people who were making money hand-over-fist from the sub-prime market made their fortunes from businesses with laissez-faire attitudes to the environment.

So as not be branded a conspiracy theorist: there are probably both direct and indirect links, both causal and otherwise, in both directions.

Laissez-faire attitudes to other people and the environment arising from laissez-faire capitalism? Not exactly a stretch, is it?

As we’ve seen with the hue and cry about tax avoidance by major corporations, there is a pattern that often (and, it seems, increasingly) emerges. People, or more correctly businesses, do what’s in their best interests, and they do so, for the most part, within the law. Suddenly the failure of the law to keep pace with a pretty generic feeling about fairness (or science) comes to light, and the powers that be (politicians) scapegoat a few key players in order to be seen to be doing something.

Alternatively, instead of scapegoating a few key players, laws are enacted that punish entire industries for doing business the way that the laws, to that point, encouraged them to do business. And invariably these laws are punitive. Why? Because politicians know very well that they were both directly and indirectly encouraging industry to carry on making money for the country, pushing up GDP, and just generally making the numbers look good whilst they’re in power. But when they get caught, flat-footed, failing to take into account the negative impact of those businesses in areas other than productivity and growth, then politicians blame industry and have to be seen to be doing something positive.

“I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it. You can’t prove anything!”

So the metric is at fault – productivity and growth. But worse, the punishment is seriously flawed (as most punishments are). We have a situation where politicians must make moves to force industries to change the way they operate because of the structure of the laws previously enacted. Any such change necessarily has a cost of compliance, but businesses are in the business of being in business. Counter-intuitively, businesses are not in the business of keeping customers happy, no, not any more (one of those costs of compliance). Now the shareholders are a company’s key concern, and the only way to keep a shareholder happy is to pass these costs of compliance on to the customers.

So what am I getting at?

I’m getting at an ultimate irony.

It seems that those least in favour of ‘cap and trade’ to resolve the emissions crisis are those most in favour of laissez-faire capitalism… and they’re right. Cap and Trade ultimately penalizes the end user, not the business that created the problem by doing business in the way that local laws allowed for, and not the politicians that enacted those laws (except in their capacity as end users, themselves).

Politicians are necessarily a reflection of the people, and people like to take revenge; something that is readily seen in the criminal justice system. In the carbon and the environment situation, it’s a case of taking revenge on businesses by making them pay for their emissions. Low-emission industries get a new revenue stream as they sell off their credits (good news for the shareholders).  High-emission industries pass the costs on to the end user, with no real incentive to work particularly hard to reduce emissions. So the populace get to feel comfortable about “doing something” with regard to carbon emissions whilst they drive up the cost to themselves of anything derived from high-emission industry, and do very little to impact emissions over all… and this particular carbon cycle starts all over again.