Tuesday 28 August 2018

Flatness is on the Rise

Believe it or not, but there are folk who inhabit this spherical world who earnestly contend that the Earth is flat. Not only that, the trend appears to be gaining in popularity to the extent that ‘Flat Earth’ conventions are being held in the United States on a regular basis. There is an oft cherished and erroneous belief that late Medieval Europeans believed in a flat Earth. This is certainly not the case. In fact, the ancient Greeks had conclusively shown that our world is round by simple trigonometry. Also, the ancient Greeks observed lunar eclipses and correctly deduced that the curved shadow of the Earth falling upon the moon indicated a spherical Earth. There is no doubt that unenlightened folk living in unenlightened times considered the Earth to be flat. This notion would be based on intuition and the flat appearance of the terrain to a naive observer. Furthermore, many religious beliefs, according to their Scriptures, and including Christianity, held the view of a flat Earth, steady and fixed. Even today, folk who should know better, take Scriptures as absolute truth and are loath to consider religious writings in their historical and cultural setting.

The rise of modern science in the West has provided numerous proofs for the spherical Earth. And if you are not convinced by the stunning photos obtained from space then nothing will convince you. The vast majority of mankind appear convinced. I’ll not relate the many arguments supplied by flat Earthers for their propositions and the plethora of counter-refutations. Given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, why is it that the flat-Earth fraternity continues to prosper? This is essentially a psychological question and strictly speaking lies outside the scientific domain. In spite of the evidence, folk choose not to believe. Motivated by religious fundamentalism, pseudoscience or a conspiracy theory mentality flat Earthers seem able to meld irrational concepts into a rational (for them at least) patchwork of ‘reality’. It is too simplistic a notion to state that believers are dumb crazies- this will not do. Indeed, many appear to apply their view of ‘rationality’ consistently and with a fair amount of admirable creativity.    

Therefore, we come back to the fundamental question, why? Like a host of psychological phenomena, the answer is not going to be pure or simple. In fact, we should ask why certain people are drawn to a conspiracy and anti-establishment mentality. This is going to be the topic of my next thrilling and hugely informative post: ‘The Madness of Crowds’. Stay tuned and be amazed!    


Saturday 25 August 2018

Tin Foil Hats and Zombies

Have you ever worried about psychotronic radiation impinging on your noddle? Or worse still having your own psychotronic radiation being syphoned off from your noddle by nefarious forces? How about protection from micro-radiation emitting Zombies trying to soften up your grey matter prior to feasting? I’m sure we have all felt the need to protect our precious brains from various government agencies. As for Zombies, it would be folly to allow our brains to become softened and rendered friable during a Zombie apocalypse. The answer is simple- wear tin foil hats. If fashioned with shiny surfaces facing out you will never have to worry about psychotronic radiation again. And remember, a single roll of tin foil will protect the whole family. Wear your tin hat with pride. Undoubtedly the naysayers and scoffers will be the first to succumb to brain cooking rays from the Zombies. Have a guess whose brains the Zombies will yearn to possess the most? What type of brain do you think Zombies prefer? A brain unsullied by par-cooking or one that has already experienced mind-numbing basting? I think we all know the answer to that question. Luckily the video below illustrates how to construct the perfect tin foil hat to protect you and your family from mind robbing and brain grilling radiation. If you want to be inconspicuous and not garner attention from ‘Zombie fodder’ while you sashay and promenade down Tipton High Street then simply line your favourite titfa with tin foil. Wibble, wibble, arse bollocks.

Watch and weep and learn how to prevent your brain from becoming mouth-wateringly edible to the undead.


Thursday 23 August 2018

Retirement: Akimbo

 It has been two months since I retired and moved to my smallholding in the Wairarapa with my wife and two extremely useless and pampered dogs. I haven’t settled into a routine yet, but a pattern seems to be emerging. The alarm insinuates at 9.00am. I have the vague feeling that I should be getting up and engaging in something useful. I briefly emerge from my cosy, warm cocoon to brew a cup of tea and then it’s back to bed. I turn on the computer and begin to write. I’m happy to engage in this activity until about 11.00am after which I rise for a leisurely breakfast. If the weather is kind I break my fast on the patio with a second cup of tea. Then the day begins.

As we are new to the property there is much to do but there is no incentive for haste. The garden requires attention. With 2.5 acres of lawn, the mowing is not a simple job and occupies most of the day using the ageing ride on mower which came with the property. Other gardening chores can take priority. For instance, we have already planted fruit trees, potatoes and onions in the vegetable plot. Tomatoes, carrots and lettuce have taken root in the greenhouse.

Gardening does not happen every day and when it does I try to balance the activity with other physical endeavours. As a matter of preference, I like to spend time in the barn where I indulge my new-found love for carpentry. I confess I’m not a gifted woodworker and have never considered myself skilled or dextrous when it comes to practical work but I persevere. I’ve completed a 6-foot workbench with vice and attached sander; built several archery targets, a shave horse; a ten bow wall mounted archery rack and I’m engaged in two separate bow projects.

I’ve plenty of space to shoot and try to practise with the bow on days when it's not raining. I have already met several likeminded archers and when the weather turns dry and hot in late spring I’ll organise and host a BBQ and target shoot.

On a perplexing note, the local blackbird has taken exception to his reflection in our windows and if not shooed away will spend his day tapping and crapping on the window and patio; no doubt defending his territory from the phantasm interloper and rival. I did consider shooting the annoying little bugger with my newly acquired rifle but my wife has softened my heart with her entreaties to desist. I’ll wait until she embarks on one of her day-long shopping trips to the ‘big city’. Tis a different story with regard to the rabbits. The property contains several warrens and the bold little bunnies can be seen hopping about the lawns during the day. However, dusk is the time when they emerge in force. Patience and a rifle fitted with a scope herald the time of slaughter. Rabbit is a tasty addition to the pot especially if you get them young enough. A tasty reminder of when I used to go a rabbiting with my dour, taciturn granddad, as a lad. Go Shagger! Arse.

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Ontological Argument

There have been a number of arguments put forth purportedly proving the existence of God. The avowed aim is to demonstrate that a belief in God is a rational belief and thus prove the existence of a supernatural deity. Many of these arguments have an ancient pedigree. They coalesced in the mind of the 13th century Christian apologetic, Thomas Aquinas. For it is he who set about presenting the various arguments in a systematic way in his book, “Summa Theologiae”. It is interesting to note that the whole edifice of the Catholic church is bound together by Thomistic philosophy. It has a lot to say about Catholicism that its philosophic base is founded upon a discredited Medieval philosophical system. The innate conservatism of the Catholic church is typified by its insistence upon notions which are antique and non-scientific. Nonetheless, even if these arguments were successful, which they are not, it would only ‘prove’ the existence of a supernatural entity. In no way would it demonstrate the Christian God with all of its associated superlative characteristics. Indeed, if the thesis could be shown to be true it would be totally consistent with a plurality of gods and therefore would not necessarily support the concept of the monotheistic God espoused in the Bible.  
The argument I would like to present is called the ‘Ontological Argument’. This was not a thesis which found favour with Aquinas. Of all the arguments put forward in support of God(s), the ontological argument is the only one which has a supposed appeal to pure reason and logic. It should be noted that if all the premises of the argument could be shown to be logically sound then the conclusion must be true. That said, let us examine the posited proof as originally proposed by the 11th-century Italian cleric, Anselm:
1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality, is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.).
6. Therefore, God exists.
Please note: Anselm’s argument has been reworked and repackaged in modern times, but the basic tenets of Anselm’s refrain remain, unsullied. Therefore, for simplicity sake, I have stuck with the original and simplistic formulation. 
There is much to understand here and it is worth reading the proposition several times to baste in its nuances and full implications. As for the rebuttal, I’ll try to keep any counter-arguments relatively simple and avoid the more technically complex refutations (Immanuel Kant was a real pissant and very rarely stable). The ontological argument received adverse criticism in its own time. Gaunilo, a contemporary monk of Anselm, argued that this form of reasoning could be used to conjure into existence all manner of none existent things. Instead of God Gaunilo substituted the concept of the greatest possible island. His implication is that Anselm’s argument could be utilised to prove the existence of anything, even green Pixies with the surname, Mugumbo. 
You may think Gaunilo’s counter rather trivial and obvious, but there are other serious philosophical objections based on fallacy and reason, as mentioned below.
The argument raises the problem of the ‘equivocation fallacy’. It can be admitted that a word may have several meanings. Thus, in Anselm’s first premise we have a conceptual god who exists only in the mind. However, in a later premise, Anselm states that God exists in reality. Surely the concept of God in the mind and the real existence of God are not the same thing. The second fallacy committed is termed, ‘begging the question’. Begging the question refers to a logical fallacy that occurs when an argument's premises assume the truth of the conclusion. Following on from this argument, and approaching from a different tack, consider this: the ontological argument is based upon the assertion that necessary existence is greater than contingent existence. To explain: contingent existence is something which can be imagined in the mind but does not exist in reality, a unicorn would be an example, while necessary existence is something which can be held in the mind but also exists in reality. A horse in this context would be a good example. The proposal that necessary existence is greater than contingent existence is taken as given by proponents of the ontological argument. Why this is the case is rarely explained. On what basis is ‘necessary’ greater than ‘contingency’? There does not appear to be an objective definition of ‘greatness’ and therefore subjectivity rules. Why is existence a great making property? A formal definition is required- but is it possible to objectively define 'greatness'.
Immanuel Kant, the 19th-century German philosopher criticised the argument on the basis of ‘existence is not a predicate’. Er, yes. Kant’s refutation is highly technical and will not be dissected further. That said, many philosophers consider Kant’s counter-argument the most effective.
So, there you have it. Are you convinced that the ontological argument is a pile of wombat dung or is it a valid proposal for the existence of supernatural deities?  Discuss.
Gentle reader, I’m sure it has not gone unnoticed that my posts of late have been very sensible. I blame my new medication which is playing havoc with my creative flow. After much deliberation with my psychiatrist, Prof Mugumbo and several voices in my head, it has been deemed necessary, nay imperative, that I should revert to my previous medication- you have been warned.    

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Islam is a Religion of Peace

It is often asserted by Muslims and the liberal left that Islam is a religion of peace. I would like to examine this assertion from a rational perspective to see if the statement in the title is rationally coherent. Of course, I could approach the topic by looking at the practical world and check out what Muslims actually do, today and in the past, but that is not the approach I’m considering today. I would like to strip the assertion to its bedrock and relate to the actual teaching and doctrine of Islam as proclaimed in the Quran and check for logical consistency. If an inconsistency is found, even once, then we can be absolutely assured that the above assertion in the title is incorrect.
Firstly, we require a definition of peace. A word may have different meanings depending on context (and all is semantics). A sound definition is an important necessity and a precursor for rational consistency. If we don’t get this right what follows, in conclusion, is likely to be incorrect. A formal definition of peace states: peace is the absence of conflict. But is this a definition of which all can agree? Muslims, if they are, to be honest, and consistent with Islam, as defined by the Quran, define peace as: “Submission to the will of Allah in order to seek eternal peace and tranquillity”. Therefore, Islam is the definition of peace as experienced by Muslims. Thus, we note that peace, as defined by Muslims, has a biased agenda. To define Islam as peace and then conclude that Islam is peaceful commits the error of circular reasoning and as such the definition is logically unsound. There are Muslims who adhere to the formal definition that peace is an absence of conflict. What havoc can we muster here? They aver that violent acts committed by Muslims represent the actions of fanatical extremists. This assertion is, to put it mildly, total unmitigated bollocks. The Quran contains numerous verses exhorting its followers to commit violence. A poll (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life) of 38,000 Muslims from 39 countries showed the following opinions. These opinions are not reflective of the ‘radical few’ but the majority of Muslims.

75% of Muslims believe that it is necessary to believe in Allah to be a moral person.

40% want the death penalty for apostasy.

60% want Sharia law to be the official law in their country of residence.

61% want homosexuals should be punished.

60% believe that a wife should obey her husband.

From this, we can see that the problem is not extremism. The problem of Muslim fundamentalism is that it is a fundamental tenet of Islam. Muslims are simply rendering the teachings according to the Quran and so-called extremists are merely conforming and, therefore, are not in conflict with its teachings; they are being true to the word of their God- scary ain’t it?
There is a viewpoint in Islam that Muhammed and the history of Islam should be considered in a historical context.  Civilisation has now progressed and we are more ‘enlightened’ because of it. But, is this the case when we consider Islam?  Islam has always stated that its teachings represent the final absolute word of God and by extension, its edicts are ABSOLUTELY FINAL. For a Muslim to state that the teachings of Islam are to be taken in historical context is to deny Muhammed’s revelation as final.
A further contention often put forward by Muslims is that Christianity is not a religion of peace. And I would agree with this assertion given the teachings within the Old Testament and historical reality. Hypocrisy is not exclusive to Islam. However, to advance this argument is to bring forth a ‘red herring’. Regardless of whether the contention is true or not is irrelevant to the case we are considering. It is just a sweet distraction and should be considered as such and ignored.
To be a peaceful Muslim requires a particular/peculiar interpretation of Islam that is not in doctrinal tune with its teachings. Tis a matter of cherry picking the Quran’s verses to find what is in accord with a peaceful outlook and blatantly ignoring the many that proclaim death to the unbeliever.  
We have covered a lot of ground in this short post. Do you believe in my propositions and conclusions? I have endeavoured to keep the debate within the realm of reason and have tried to avoid the emotional content associated with religious consideration. Whether I have been successful, or not, I’ll leave my gentle reader to judge. Arse.

Thursday 9 August 2018

LUCA and Other Musings


Recently I had a discussion with a young Jehovah’s Witness. The discussion soon turned to evolution and it became very clear to me that my young protagonist had no idea concerning the mechanism of evolution. No surprise I suppose as the JWs are only allowed to read texts about evolution that have been penned by the JW hierarchy and these texts exclusively emphasise how evolution is not a valid driver for biological change, thus paving the way for creationism. He had been taught that scientists believe that man had evolved directly from the great apes such as gorillas and chimpanzees. Actually, this is a misconception held by many lay folk and is not exclusive to JWs. This is not how evolution works and I explained that humans and great apes were derived from a common ancestor loping about some 6 million years ago. Humans and apes then diverged to pursue their own unique evolutionary histories and pathways culminating in modern humans and modern apes. He had never been taught or had contemplated this scenario before and appeared genuinely nonplussed.

Not only do we share a common ancestor with the Pongids, but by extension, to every other living creature on earth, even the humble Prokaryote bacterium. Prior to 1977, life could be classified as belonging to one of two domains: Prokaryotes and Eukaryotes. Prokaryotes refer to bacteria, Eukaryotes are more complex multicellular organisms and this broad domain includes creatures as diverse as fungi and humans. In 1977 the science of Taxonomy broadened to include a domain subsequently classified as Archaea. Archaea are single-celled organisms, vaguely similar to bacteria, but simpler. At some point in evolutionary history, the three main domains converged and consequently shared a common ancestor. Is this mere conjecture from biologists indulging in a drug filled reverie or is it evidence based? The genetic revolution over the past 40 years has allowed scientists to gain access to genetic evidence suggesting a common ancestor to all current life on Earth. A comparison of the genetic blueprint from diverse species enables geneticists to check for gene commonality. Genes have been discovered which appear in all species so far examined. It matters not that it be a bacterium, toadstool or human, these genes are always present. The implication, of course, is that these universal genes arose from a common ancestral organism or: Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA). Also, genetic technology enables researchers to reach back to uncover the genetic makeup of this mother of all life. A putative genomic reconstruction suggests that LUCA was sustained by 500 to 600 genes.  Furthermore, it is likely that the ancestral genome was RNA based. All living organisms extant are DNA based. DNA is a much better molecule for the conveyance of genetic instructions and for the faithful reproduction of information. However, DNA is a more complex molecule than RNA and the first life is more likely to have started with simpler molecules. The evolution from RNA to DNA based life forms would have represented one of the major milestones in the development of life.

LUCA represents a very primitive form of life and may have existed some 3.8 billion years- only 700,000 years after the formation of the earth. This is not to say that LUCA was the ‘first life’. It has been hypothesised that other life forms were present, but LUCA represents the organism which spawned all life we see today. Other competing life forms were ultimately unsuccessful and have disappeared, without a trace. Earth’s environment 3.8 billion years ago would have been completely different from today. First life would have arisen in the oceans and LUCA may have flourished next to geothermal vents on the seabed. Metabolism would have relied on and exploited chemical reactions in the sulphur rich environment. The development of photosynthesis harnessing sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce energy while releasing oxygen as a waste product would have to wait for a further 1.8 billion years. Cyanobacteria were the first organisms to utilise solar energy for photosynthesis. They flourished in the warm shallow waters of the continental shelves. At that time the atmosphere would have been composed of a highly reducing atmosphere of carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia and water vapour. Over the next 200 million years the highly successful cyanobacteria released oxygen thus changing the atmosphere to a more familiar composition with an oxygen level of around 20%. Oxygen is a highly reactive molecule and most forms of life could not adapt to this highly oxidising environment culminating in the Great Oxygenation Catastrophe. Most forms of life perished thus setting the stage for the radiation and evolution of life based on the successful cyanobacteria.

For me, the evolution of early life is a fascinating topic, but not as interesting as the original formulation of life itself. When we find evidence of early life in the rocks, that life is already highly complex and highly evolved. But going further back in time, what constituted the first ‘life’? And more importantly, if the first primordial life could somehow be resurrected in a ‘Mad Scientist’s test tube or surreal dream, would we recognise it as such? Now that IS a question.        


Wednesday 1 August 2018

Aristarchus of Samos

Aristarchus of Samos wallowed in this world circa 310 BC to 230 BC. A philosopher not quite in the mould of classical philosophers. Aristarchus, like Archimedes, embarked on what would be called today: ‘Scientific Endeavour’. He is the first to present the heliocentric model that placed the sun in the centre of the known universe. This was in contradiction to the widely held view, famously put forward by Aristotle, which placed the Earth at the centre of all celestial bodies. The Earth-centric model was further developed and mathematically refined by Ptolemy of Alexandra c150 AD, from which it takes its name (Ptolemaic System). Thus, Aristarchus’ heliocentric model remained an unpopular explanation for the near cosmos until the coming of Copernicus who showed the scientific validity of the heliocentric system (1543) in his book, ‘On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies’. Nicolaus Copernicus, to his credit and rightly so, ascribed the origin of the model to Aristarchus. Of course, the works of Copernicus and others heralded the coming of the ‘Scientific Revolution’, a most remarkable and scientifically fecund period in human history- I’ll have more to say about this period in a future post. The evidence for a heliocentric system could have been divined by any genius during the Medieval period had it not been for the Catholic church. The Church effectively stifled contemplation along these lines. Anyone, suggesting a non-Earth ascendant model risked the designation of heretic as it was considered contrary to ‘Holy Scripture’. Copernicus’ model did not immediately receive Papal censure possibly because Copernicus posited the model as a hypothesis and couched his thesis in a way to suggest it was not necessarily true. Also, it was a difficult time for the Church as it was heavily involved and distracted by the 'Council of Trent' (1545-1563). During this period the Church was grappling with the devasting implications of the Protestant Reformation. With time, religious opposition mounted and the book was placed on the list of banned books 73 years after publication.
We have little of Aristarchus' work from his own hand and most of what we know about this presciently modern thinker is derived from the pen of others, especially Archimedes. This is unfortunate as other writers rarely go into detail as to Aristarchus’s deductive thinking. Therefore, it is not known whether Aristarchus arrived at his revolutionary system by intuition or whether he used astronomical observation and mathematical reasoning to thrash out his model. I’m inclined to the latter explanation as it is known that Aristarchus was an accomplished mathematician and astronomical observer. 
Sadly, only one of Aristarchus’s works has survived. Here he attempts to calculate the sizes of the sun and moon. He also makes a heroic attempt to calculate the Sun and Moon’s distance from the Earth by observation. From this, he calculated that the distance of the Earth to the Sun was 19 times greater than the distance to the Moon. Although his result was incorrect this was due to the limitation of observation technology of his time. His methodology and deduction were faultless.       
And there we have it. Poor Aristarchus has never received the recognition he undoubtedly deserves. In ancient times this was probably due to the unpopularity of his theory as it clashed with the musings of the balefully influential, Aristotle. In  modern times he has gained a mere footnote in the annals of history and most folk today are oblivious to this ‘Great Man's’ achievements. 

Sometimes history can seem unfair and capricious for reasons often dimly perceived or perceived not at all. But this is no bother to industrious Aristarchus- his consciousness has long since disappeared and posthumous fame can count for nought with the dead.