Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

On Food Choices, part 2: but is it healthy?

January 20, 2019
Once you are open to questioning rituals and time-honoured practices, you find that one question leads to another. (Carl Sagan)
Let food be thy medicine. (Hippocrates)

The central concern about a plant-based diet is this: is it healthy?

It’s a very reasonable question. Committing to any kind of dietary strategy without some understanding of it is to run a potentially dangerous experiment.

We all need to make decisions based upon evidence not dogma or wishful thinking, sometimes easier said than done since we’re creatures of emotion not pure reason.

I’ve been learning a lot lately. What I found is mostly good news but there are things to be aware of and I don’t want to sweep anything under the carpet.

I’m not a climate scientist, but I understand the fundamental science and accept the idea of evidence-based consensus.

I’m not a nutrition scientist or dietician either, but I can inform myself by reading, critical thinking and conversation.

By the same token, here’s a disclaimer: I am not a nutrition scientist or dietician! When I refer to publications, I am reporting what I have found. Everything else is my opinion, hopefully well-informed opinion based upon evidence and reason.

I read fairly widely for what follows but the main references are:

  • the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines of the National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC)
  • a supplement to Issue 1999 volume 4 of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), and
  • a book by Peter Singer and Jim Mason titled “The Ethics of What we Eat”. Singer is a well known Australian philosopher.

The 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines from the NH&MRC says this:

Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthy and nutritionally adequate. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle.

Those following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet can meet nutrient requirements as long as energy needs are met and an appropriate variety of plant foods are eaten throughout the day.

It continues (my italics):

Those following a vegan diet should choose foods to ensure adequate intake of iron and zinc and to optimise the absorption and bioavailability of iron, zinc and calcium. Supplementation of vitamin B12 may be required for people with strict vegan dietary patterns.

Volume 199, Issue 4 supplement of the Medical Journal of Australia (October 9 2013) contains numerous articles about plant-based diets including this one: A plant-based diet — good for us and for the planet.

This issue of MJA also has articles dealing specifically with protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc and omega-3 from plant-based sources including cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds, oils, and from foods fortified with some of these nutrients.

The MJA article Protein and vegetarian diets (my italics) has this to say:

If a vegetarian diet is planned to meet the requirements for essential micronutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12, it is likely that protein needs will be exceeded. Most plant foods contain some protein, with the best sources being legumes, soy foods (including soy milk, soy yoghurt, tofu and tempeh), Quorn (mycoprotein), nuts and seeds. Grains and vegetables also contain protein, but in smaller amounts.

In relation to protein, Singer & Mason, in their book The Ethics of What we Eat (p 205, 206) comment that:

The first question most people ask vegans and vegetarians is “Where do you get your protein?” The prevalence of that question is a hangover from an earlier period, starting in the 1930s, when nutritionists believed we needed a high level of protein in our diet, and that a protein-deficient diet was a major cause of malnutrition.

The idea that we need high levels of protein was disproven in the 1970s, and health authorities reduced recommended protein levels to about a third of what had been thought to be required.

I didn’t know about that history before reading this book. A comment that I found a bit surprising is that with the reduced recommended protein intake from the 1970s “…even a diet consisting exclusively of bread, pasta, rice or potatoes will provide adequate protein.” (Singer & Mason, p 206).

Then again, rice underpins the diet of many people around the world. And apparently, contrary to the old saying, man can live by bread (or potatoes) alone. Of course, this says nothing about the other essential nutrients which must be taken into account, only protein, and I think it’s fair to say that there are malnourished people around the world who live on a diet that lacks variety.

The MJA article also has this to say:

While the lower protein intake and quality of protein in a vegetarian diet is often believed to be a concern, there is increasing evidence that consuming protein from plant rather than animal sources may, in fact, be one of the reasons why vegetarians generally have a lower risk of…obesity and chronic disease. In comparison to protein foods of animal origin, most plant protein sources are lower in saturated fat, free of cholesterol and haem iron, higher in fibre, and are good sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals, all of which may contribute to a reduced disease risk.

The MJA article goes on to say that a number of studies show that higher protein intake — animal protein in particular — in childhood may increase the risk of obesity later. It also has a useful table (Box 2) of recommended daily protein intake for different ages and genders.

One morning while taking a break from writing a draft of this post, I ate a nut bar containing 8g of protein. Added to the 3 serves of soy milk I typically have per day, that gives half of the required dietary intake of protein without much effort. A mix of fruits, vegetables, lentils/beans/chickpeas, meat substitutes if desired such as veggie sausages or burgers — there’s around 19g in 2 veggie sausages vs around 25g in a 100g beef steak — will help with the rest.

The MJA article concludes (my italics) with:

Vegetarians who eat a range of plant foods can easily meet their protein requirements, even though the protein content of vegetarian diets is usually lower than that of omnivorous diets. Most Australians eat significantly more protein than is required. The consumption of plant protein rather than animal protein may play a role in weight management and reducing chronic disease risk.

Moving on, Singer & Mason continue with this:

After protein, the nutrient that concerns most people when going on a vegetarian or vegan diet is iron. Many plant foods are rich in iron, including soybeans, molasses, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots, pinto beans, spinach, and raisins. Iron from plant foods may not, however, be as easily absorbed as iron in meat.

Taking vitamin C with iron rich foods makes the iron more available.

Vitamin C is not hard to come by in various fruits (e.g. oranges, strawberries) and juices. Singer & Mason also point out that coffee, tea, and calcium supplements inhibit the absorption of iron. So drinking coffee or tea with a meal makes it harder to absorb iron.

Vitamin B12 requires serious consideration since it is not generally present in plant matter and is necessary for nerve myelin integrity and DNA synthesis. It is created by bacteria and present in animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy, foods fortified with B12 like soy milk, some cereal, and dietary yeast.

Alternatively, a B12 supplement can be taken. Some people, such as those with low intrinsic factor (e.g. in my age group of over 50) or those with pernicious anaemia may need a supplement anyway due to a reduced ability to absorb B12. Some even choose to have B12 injections where there is a known deficiency or a high risk of deficiency.

Indeed, if there is concern about a possible deficiency of any of the important nutrients, a supplement (e.g. multi-vitamin or specific) can be used. On one occasion several years ago when donating blood I was told to take iron supplements before I could donate again. At that time I ate plenty of animal products.

There’s a lot written on the topic of vitamin B12, but the important thing is to be aware of the potential for deficiency, to think about whether you are consuming enough, and to get levels tested if concerned. What every vegan should know about B12 is an honest appraisal and there is also a good MJA article about B12.

The MJA articles don’t have a separate article about calcium but the 2013 NH&MRC guidelines point to fortified foods as sources, again, such as soy milk.

The MJA article about zinc makes a number of points, including:

  • Vegetarians appear to adapt to lower zinc intakes by increased absorption and retention of zinc.
  • Good sources of zinc for vegetarians include whole grains, tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts and seeds, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products.

  • Studies show vegetarians have similar serum zinc concentrations to, and no greater risk of zinc deficiency than, non-vegetarians (despite differences in zinc intake).

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. We are used to seeing a food pyramid. The 2013 NH&MRC guidelines present the same thing in a slightly different form:

The main message is:

  • mostly grains and vegetables
  • meat/poultry/fish/eggs or tofu/nuts/seeds/legumes
  • fruit
  • dairy or alternatives

The “in small amounts” parts of the figure are not very surprising either.

In 2006, The American Dietetic Association said that:

Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence. (Singer & Mason, The Ethics of What we Eat, p 202).

They add that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and prostate and colon cancer.

Near the end of their chapter Is it unethical to raise children vegan?, Singer & Mason mention this:

Meanwhile, further evidence of the ability of a vegan diet to provide all the energy and stamina anyone needs was provided by Scott Jurek’s victory in the 2005 Badwater Ultramarathon, one of the toughest events in ultra-long-distance running, Jurek, a vegan, shattered by more than 30 minutes a course record that some thought unbreakable, finishing a full 2 hours ahead of his nearest rival… Along the way, he ate vegan energy bars, potatoes, rice balls and soy protein drinks. Jurek has plenty of predecessors, among them Carl Lewis, who won nine Olympic track and field gold medals between 1984 and 1996. Lewis became a vegan in 1990 and has written that ‘my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet.’

This post has only scratched the surface of the question in the title. I obviously don’t have all the answers, but hopefully, this is a start towards allaying some concerns and I’ve tried to be honest about potential problems.

A plant-based diet — good for us and for the planet ends with this (my italics):

Not everyone needs to or wants to become vegetarian, but reducing our dependence on meat is a good recipe for our own health and also that of our planet. Diets dominated by plant foods are almost certainly the way of the future.

So, the decisions we make about what to eat depend, in part, upon the needs of people (personal preference, health, a fair price) and sustainability, the topics parts 1 and 2 were most focussed on.

The next post picks up where the first left off by considering the elephant in the room, so to speak.

Part 3: like a splinter in my mind

On Food Choices, part 1: the right road lost

January 14, 2019

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost. (Dante)

Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way. (Christopher Hitchens)

I agree with Hitch’s sentiment but the happiness part doesn’t necessarily follow from thinking for yourself. It’s not guaranteed to make relationships with those around you any smoother either. My transition away from a religious worldview in the 90s didn’t lead to an increase in happiness, just to a more healthy relationship with reality.

It’s hard to change the habits of a lifetime and navigating the maze of food choices is not simple.

I’ve been trying to write about this for months, mostly unsuccessfully, because it’s so big and because what I’ve been working through is disruptive to those I care about.

I know I can be annoying once I start going down rabbit holes, worse when a topic is not free of controversy. Those close to me and in the workplace could vouch for that. Karen relates to commentary about the “species” that is the subject of this short amusing video:

Rather than trying to say everything all at once, I eventually realised that it made sense to write a sequence of more digestible (pun not intended) parts. This one will serve as an introduction.

As far as I can see, there are four main aspects to consider when it comes to food choices:

  1. The desires and health of a human individual.
  2. The food producer’s livelihood.
  3. The impact upon the environment.
  4. The welfare of animals.

The desires and health of a human individual

Without individual health nothing much else matters to us, so the first item on the list is clearly of crucial importance.

I’ll return to this in part 2.

I’ve generally been the kind of person who is happy to have a meal without, well, making a meal out of it. I try not to spend much time preparing or eating food.

But the thing is, I like the taste of beef, bacon, ham, fish, turkey, chicken, cheese, milk, and other foods I’ve spent half a century eating.

Of course, it’s important to distinguish between wants or likes, and needs.

Desires have a subjective importance that should be weighed against other factors rather than being accepted without question. They include purely personal preferences as well as cultural and religious traditions.

The food producer’s livelihood

Fair Trade coffee is an example of the second aspect, e.g. poor farmers receiving fair compensation for the coffee beans they’ve grown.

Karen and I used to buy instant coffee in large bags from Oxfam shops. We still try to buy Fair Trade instant coffee although it’s less common in supermarkets than would be hoped. But Fair Trade is about more than income, such as freeing people from slavery (unbelievably still a thing in the 21st century), allowing freedom of association to form unions, and providing income for education to improve the lot of future generations.

Two more examples are: dairy farmers getting a fair price for the milk their cows produce and fishermen getting enough of a share of fish stock quota to make a living.

It’s worth noting that securing a food producer’s livelihood is a different matter from the long-term sustainability of the produce.

The impact upon the environment

The third and fourth aspects go beyond the world of people though, of what we need, want or like.

Motivated by environmental concerns, as a family we have have reduced our consumption of meat over the last few years. On resource usage and emissions grounds, beef and lamb are less sustainable than pigs, chicken, or fish (see less meat less heat). Beef and lamb are obvious first targets, low hanging fruit, so to speak.

The Australian Climate Council had this to say in 2017 (my italics):

The livestock sector is responsible for a massive 15% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally. This makes global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock higher than all emissions from road, rail, air and marine transport combined.

Cattle, raised for beef, milk and other outputs such as manure, make up 65% of greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector. One of the primary reasons for this statistic is cow ‘burps’, which contain methane produced during digestion … These ‘burps’ are particularly problematic in the fight against climate change, as methane is about 28 times more powerful in terms of its potential to cause global warming than carbon dioxide.

The infographic in this Climate Council report shows that a whopping 51% of Australian land use is for livestock grazing:

Australian Livestock Infographic (source: Climate Council)

I came across this video of Bill Nye recently musing over a question from a young caller on the theme of climate change and emissions from cattle, in his usual straightforward way:

We tend to hear less about the impact of methane as a greenhouse gas and more about carbon dioxide. Is that perhaps because of the livestock link? Profit and tradition? As a comparable aside, I’ve often thought that fixing the hole in the ozone layer was less socially challenging because unlike minimising the effects of climate change, it didn’t require us to give up as much profit or tradition, just find a replacement for CFCs in a manageably small number of products.

Speaking of tradition (coffee in the morning!), several months ago I switched to soy cappuccinos, again for sustainability reasons, because dairy milk requires cattle, presenting similar resource usage (land, water, food) and emissions problems as for beef production.

Later, I started using soy milk in cereal and drinking soy on its own. At first I thought I would never like (that word again) the taste. I had spent decades drinking cow’s milk. It didn’t take long to adapt though and now I actually prefer it.

Seriously.

I didn’t like beer much to begin with either! Both violated the principle of least surprise: they didn’t taste like I expected them to.

As an aside, around the same time as switching to soy milk, I moved to a “keep cup” at work that Karen had bought for me, because disposable coffee cups are a huge landfill problem. Before that I was throwing away a disposable cup every day! Of course, as a society, we generate all manner of rubbish and support wasteful, inefficient packaging of the goods that we purchase, but coffee cups are very high on the list as it turns out.

In any case, if we just consider resource usage, sustainability and climate change alone, perpetuating a demand for livestock based food is arguably questionable, especially as the human population continues its exponential growth.

This short video from The Economist asks whether there is a case for the future of food to be plant-based on such grounds:

The welfare of animals

Motivated by the fourth aspect, Karen and I have been choosing free range eggs for quite awhile now with the help of apps like CluckAR. Determining what constitutes free range and what doesn’t can be tricky though. As we’ve discovered, the number of birds and the conditions under which they are kept vary wildly under the “free range” banner.

But why stop at the ethical treatment of egg laying hens?

It would also seem to be a reasonable thing to say, if understated and obvious, that in general, any reduction of the demand for meat is a good thing for those animals not consumed.

Further discussion of animal welfare is too much for the current post.

Before going down that particular rabbit hole in part 3, I want to return to the question of the health of a human individual.

Part 2: but is it healthy?

Two Archbishops and a Law

July 10, 2018

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Source: ABC News

Soon after the inadequate sentencing of Archbishop Wilson to 12 months of home detention (and even this he will appeal!), his successor, the Acting Archbishop of Adelaide Greg O’Kelly says that the new laws coming into effect in October requiring priests to report admissions of child sexual abuse heard during confession won’t affect the church.

Politicians can change the law, but we can’t change the nature of the confessional, which is a sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ.

That does not change by the law of politicians.

Wow.

The same old we’re in the world but not of the world mantra.

South Australian Catholics must be doing a collective facepalm at the moment. Or at least they should be.

As this ABC News article comments:

Under the Catholic Church, to gain absolution — and therefore to then be able to take holy communion again and avoid eternal damnation — a person needs to be contrite about their sins and do penance.

In the 21st century, that should give anyone pause and is a good example of why people need to be respected but beliefs don’t.

Strictly speaking, I think the foregoing only applies to so-called mortal sins. But then again, since homosexuality is counted as a mortal sin, there’s a whole segment of society that is apparently damned by nothing other than their natural state of being.

Then there’s abortion. Obviously women shouldn’t have control over their own bodies and severely deformed babies should always be brought into the world just because the Catholic church says so.

Duh.

Then there’s apostasy. That’s right. We hear about apostates having their lives threatened in some Muslim majority rule countries. But in Catholicism, it’s apparently also a grave matter to give up one’s the Christian faith. I suppose that’s not surprising since not being a Catholic means, well, not being a Catholic. Which is apparently bad…

In any case, that many of us still give such ideas the time of day is a solid indication of our lack of maturity as a species.

Religious groups demand tolerance and freedom while at the same time themselves being forces for intolerance and placing restrictions on freedom.

And yet, as Paul Collins, a former Catholic priest said in a recent ABC interview:

What’s happened within Catholicism really over the last 40 years has been a complete collapse of people going anywhere near a confessional.

Most Catholics including myself haven’t been near a confessional for 30 years or even longer.

A casual conversation with a friend who has Catholic relatives of various ages suggests this may not be an unreasonable statement.

Apparently, modern Catholic Mass allows a person to admit their sinful nature and gain absolution by the priest, asking God to have mercy on them and to forgive their sins.

So, if this is the case, wouldn’t it be nice if O’Kelly just said, yes, we’ll go along with it, especially in light of dwindling confessor numbers, instead of insulting the rest of us by ignoring the law of the land, especially since as O’Kelly himself says, priests have mandatory reporting training and responsibilities anyway?

Here’s how silly it gets, in O’Kelly’s own words:

Anything said inside the confessional box is subject to the seal of confession, but if a child mentioned he or she had been abused while there “it’s the sort of the thing where you’d invite them to speak to you outside of confession”.

In other words, what is said inside the magic box, stays inside the magic box, but if a mortal sin is spoken about outside the magic box, then the priest can report it?

We’re meant to take this seriously?

Maybe it’s best to just allow senior Catholic clerics to continue to talk themselves into the total irrelevance to which they and their Church should be relegated.

On the incoherence of the Good and Bad Place

April 9, 2018

The Good Place uses comedy to explore the absurdities of the afterlife. More than that, the show does a great job of making moral philosophy accessible.

The show’s plot assumes salvation by works, i.e. that to get to Heaven, you have to be a good person. Christian denominations differ over whether salvation by works or salvation by faith (atonement through the sacrifice of Jesus) or some combination is required to get you to Heaven or, if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, resurrected at some future time.

An early church founder, Tertullian, looked forward to being in Heaven so he could witness the eternal torture of the wicked in Hell.

Takes all kinds I guess…

While listening to an episode of The Thinking Atheist podcast, I heard a short, simple argument, or perhaps a parable – to borrow a biblical word – that casts doubt upon the coherence of Heaven and Hell. I’ll paraphrase and extend it here.

Ruth’s daughter, Mary, believes in salvation by faith and the reality of Heaven and Hell. She’s not certain what Hell is, but she knows it means eternal separation from God.

Mary is sad that Ruth, who Mary believes isn’t saved, won’t be with her in Heaven, that she will be separated from her mother for all eternity.

And yet…

When Mary is in Heaven, blissfully worshipping God forever, won’t she feel sad about being eternally separated from Ruth?

If so, won’t that negatively affect the quality of Mary’s eternal stay in Heaven?

No problem, you say!

God can make Mary feel better. God can do anything! He is omnipotent after all. He can make her forget about how she feels. He can make her forget about Ruth, about what she meant to Mary.

Or perhaps that’s a step too far…

Maybe God won’t remove the memory, just change the way Mary thinks and feels about her history with Ruth.

But then…

Who will Mary become?

Like someone who takes a drug to forget…

Or like a person with memory loss or personality change…

Either way, surely, Ruth would become someone other than who she used to be in some important sense.

Is this a water-tight argument against the existence of the Good and Bad places? Of course not. The non-existence of a thing is generally difficult to demonstrate. But it does chip away at the coherence of such ideas and should serve to further diminish their insane hold over us.

Why do I care about this argument? Because I know people in a Mary-Ruth scenario, and because this is just another example of how religion poisons everything, as the sub-title of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is NOT Great, says.

Aren’t there enough interesting and complex phenomena to devote our attention to without inventing complexities? Without creating gods, principalities, eternal abodes or false dichotomies (heaven or hell, saved or damned, …)?

If the Universe itself was capable of having a perspective, our lives would resemble a one-shot pulse from a 555 timer, a non-repeating SETI Wow! signal, a single QRS complex on an ECG from a dying heart, each briefly punctuating a baseline of nothingness.

oneshotadjusted

And yet…

Up close and personal, it’s different, because we are meaning creators.

It’s what you do within that brief pulse that matters, to you, your fellow meaning creators, and the other beings impacted by your actions.

The plain truth is that we have a good understanding of what happens to living things when they die, homo sapiens or any other species, admittedly less so about the subjective experience of the hypoxic sapiens mind near death.

Every organism that has ever lived, or ever will, was not alive for 13.8 billion years, after the beginning of the Universe.

When the life of an organism comes to an end, it will once again not be alive for an even unimaginably longer time into the future.

What makes these two not alive events asymmetric is that mammals like us have memories of individuals who once were and an anticipation of the end, the falling edge of the pulse, the precipice.

It’s in the nature of mammals like us to remember, to worry, to grieve, to fail spectacularly to live our lives primarily in the present.

It’s from this that our musings about possible afterlives derive, for any version of which, no compelling evidence exists.

All of which underscores the importance, even the urgency, of living as if today actually mattered, not for some imagined future, and of the need to be kinder to earthlings of all persuasions and species.

 

What counts as good belief?

January 29, 2018

We watched Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus over the Christmas break. I’d never seen much of it and Karen’s interest in watching it again after a long hiatus encouraged me to sit down and watch it with her. Thanks Karen, it was well worth watching.

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source: goo.gl/Xi5CDj

The true story and the TV adaptation we saw are both positive, moving tales. Eight year old Virginia’s friends tell her there is no Santa Claus so she writes a letter to the editor of The New York Sun asking for advice, since as her father tells her: “if you see it in the The Sun, it’s so”.

exhibits_online_yesvirginia_g4031

source: goo.gl/Xi5CDj

The author of the editorial: Francis Church, an atheist and cynic, having seen his share of suffering, writes an enduring letter that has inspired many since the editorial was first published in 1897. Here’s an excerpt (italics are mine):

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

There is something beautiful in encouraging kids to imagine.

I admit to some internal conflict when our kids were young regarding what to tell them about Santa, the Easter bunny, the Tooth Fairy and so on. In the end we encouraged such beliefs for as long as the kids were willing to imagine playfully with us.

Interestingly, Virginia’s 1930 PhD thesis was entitled The Importance of Play.

Although as an atheist I generally prefer not to pretend to know things I don’t know, the kind of belief in Santa that was the subject of Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter and the The Sun editorial, is, I think, perfectly okay.

Even in recent times I’ve heard the same sort of “there is no Santa” comment that prompted Virginia’s letter to The Sun, expressed between young children, encouraged by adults, who at the same time profess belief in God.

That brings me to the question in this post’s title: what counts as good belief?

What’s the difference between these two statements?

  • I believe in Santa Claus
  • I believe in God

Other than that the first refers to a particular individual while the second to any one of a number of possible gods, their form is identical. We can remedy this remaining difference by reframing the second statement as:

  • I believe in Jesus (or Yaweh or Jeohvah or …)

Too often, the second form is accompanied by exclusive statements, such as:

Hmm…and here I was thinking that the reason for the season was axial tilt. Not to mention Saturnalia.

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sourcegoo.gl/1nFcUZ

The worst that can happen, in the child’s mind, for not believing in Santa or for being on the naughty list, is that they will receive no presents. True, there have been other harsher myths associated with Christmas, but I’m thinking broadly about the contemporary situation in the western world.

The worst that can happen, in the believer’s mind, for non-belief in God or being wicked (i.e. not accepting either salvation by faith or works) is eternal separation from God and loved ones or eternal torment in Hell.

So, again, what counts as good belief?

In my view, it’s the kind that doesn’t hold you ransom, that encourages you to imagine things not yet imagined while not making threats or requiring you to be dogmatic or to abandon critical thinking. In short, one that allows you to be creative but still allows you to think for yourself.

Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way. Christopher Hitchens

A key difference between encouraging a child to believe in a powerful being who can deliver presents to every house in a single night and childhood indoctrination into belief in a personal god, and the associated demands, is the exclusivity of the second. That and the lack of fun.

Here’s another excerpt (again, my italics):

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

I have some sympathy with Church’s view that:

They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.

and especially:

In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him.

We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater of course. As George Santayana says:

Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.

There is so much we don’t yet understand and we should approach the gulf between what we do and don’t know with humility. The universe as revealed through evidence by Science so far is stranger than anything we could have imagined:

  • We live in a universe in which everything we can see and touch makes up only a few percent of everything that is, the rest apparently being dark matter or dark energy.
  • On the smallest scales there exists a seething ocean of particle-antiparticle pairs coming into and out of existence.
  • If we travel fast enough, time will slow down and our mass will increase.

Alice’s world seems almost normal by comparison.

Science doesn’t claim to have the answer to all questions, yet the Scientific Method is the most successful and powerful form of knowledge acquisition we know. If new evidence comes to light to change our model of the world, then it will change after the dust has settled. That’s an important departure from dogmatic thinking, and skepticism is an important part of the Scientific Method.

There’s room for a child-like view of the world that encourages imagination and optimism, as well as an honest view of the world that requires careful thought and evidence regarding important questions, especially those with life-changing potential.

Kids will ask questions about early beliefs when they’re ready and that’s okay. Adults should encourage the fun aspects of early belief with a twinkle in their eye while accepting that questions will come.

It’s often been said that children are natural born scientists until society discourages them from asking honest, simple questions. I’d like to think that Francis Church the cynic and Virginia the child seeker-of-answers and adult teacher might have agreed.

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted. Bertrand Russell

Mr & Mrs JW: I have some questions…

October 3, 2017

In recent months, I’ve noticed more of you in pairs with portable pamphlet displays, congregating mostly around public transport interchanges, train stations, busy street corners, and near the occasional university in Adelaide.

Are we special or is the picture more or less the same elsewhere?

Is the Apocalypse impending? Wasn’t it supposed to happen in the mid-70s? Where’s the evidence that it will ever happen? Please don’t say “it’s in the Bible”. That doesn’t count as evidence. Telling me to “have faith” doesn’t help either. I prefer not to pretend to know things I don’t know, especially for no apparent reason and certainly not about things that could profoundly affect my life, in spite of Pascal’s Wager.

Why do you think it’s reasonable that Joseph Rutherford in the early 1930s declared that only 144,000 would make it to heaven once the total number of JWs exceeded that number?

Isn’t that just a little bit convenient?

Do you think you’re one of those 144,000?

If not, what makes you OK with the idea that millions of you will be resurrected bodily, zombie-like (from Jehovah’s Witness to Jehovah’s Zombie?) to live in “paradise” (no, not Paradise, the Adelaide suburb, although that is close to a major bus interchange) built upon the 7 billion human corpses of the Apocalypse, assuming the rest of us haven’t become followers by then. Unlikely!

And why exactly is it that every other species on Earth must pay for the sins of humankind with their future? Why the heck does it always have to be about us? What makes you think we’re so special? That we have a soul? Evidence?

But that’s your mission now, isn’t it? To get yourself and the rest of us through the Apocalypse and into this paradise on earth depicted by the Watch Tower publications you hand out.

Isn’t that at least a little bit creepy?

What will happen in Paradise? What will our newly resurrected bodies be sustained by? All other species will be dead, won’t they, or are some going to be bodily resurrected too just so they can be consumed again? Will we get to worship your genocidal god for eternity? If so, we’ll need to be sustained for eternity so we’ll need food for eternity.

I hope we find strong evidence for life on other worlds. Not because we will be able to communicate within reasonable timeframes, but so that the Copernican revolution continues on its logical trajectory toward deposing us from our delusion of central importance in the universe. We can be important to one another and create meaning in our lives without being favoured by gods. Watch Pale Blue Dot! It always comes back to that.

How is it that you don’t see that in the marketplace of religions, yours is just as manufactured as the rest? We create gods in our own image not the other way around!

What evidence do you have that around 1915, your religion was “selected” by Jesus to be the one true religion? Has no-one else declared such a status for their religion?

And don’t get me started on shunning, your theological allergy to blood transfusions, or allegations of child sexual abuse in your chosen church? It’s not just the Catholics and Anglicans anymore who are under the spotlight.

I’ve engaged in civil conversation with JWs when they’ve knocked on our door, especially when a child has been in attendance, so they at least hear a different viewpoint. But door knocks are infrequent and I feel the need to engage in street epistemology with JWs (or Mormons or …) where I find them.

I don’t particularly enjoy debate or conflict, but I like dogmatic thinking less.

I wrote this post after hearing a compelling interview with Lloyd Evans, an ex Jehovah’s Witness, on The Thinking Atheist podcast.

Questionable church websites: prayer by email?

September 17, 2017

I passed by a school and associated church-next-door while out walking in an Adelaide suburb yesterday. They had a web address on their signage so I navigated there in my phone’s browser to get an idea of their theology. Not too fundamentalist. Probably not too different from the sort of liberal theology I grew up with. Probably a nice bunch of people and a caring community.

But I did a double-take when I saw this:

img_1721

Intrigued, I clicked “Request Prayer”.

what_would_like_pray

they asked. Hmm. So, I felt compelled to reply:

email2g

Seriously, I know that (the Christian) God is supposed to forgive all sins, but a missing personal pronoun and an unnecessary capitalisation? Blasphemy!

Anyway, I’ve at least made the suggestion that direct email communication with the almighty might be a Good Thing. We’ll see what comes of it. Not much I suspect.

The church in question has my email address (what the heck, so does the rest of the Internet it seems).

However, after clicking Submit, I did get this response page:

img_1720

Naturally, I have a question… You know what’s coming, don’t you?

My question is this: who has my submission been received by, exactly? 🙂

As you might imagine, I have not received an email response yet (from a god or a parishioner concerned for my soul) and I suspect I won’t. After all, it was not actually a prayer request, more like web site feedback, if a little cheeky. It should be taken as gentle satire of course, something to reflect upon.

There is a serious point to be made here though. If gods really wanted to communicate with us, they could choose to do so clearly and distinctly. Sagan (as always) captures the essence of this for me:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (source)

 

Questionable church signs #2

May 11, 2017

Another church sign, same non-fundamentalist denomination, one month later:

So, there exists at least one Christian not opposed to marriage equality.

Hmm…

Fairly uncontroversial given the likely diversity of theological views in such a congregation.

I appreciate that this is an attempt to counter the opinions of those of a more conservative persuasion, but it’s not a terribly strong message.

The essential problem is that it suggests a house divided and says little about what Christianity has to offer to the problem.

How can inter-faith dialogue even at the highest level recognise world views that are fundamentally incompatible and in principle, immune to revision? The truth is it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

 

Questionable church signs #1

May 9, 2017

An Adelaide church sign recently caught my attention:

I’ve omitted the border because I’m not interested in pointing to a particular congregation.

While cute, what struck me about the words is that it illustrates how we are able to create gods in our own image.

Is it really such a leap to go from this to considering the Ten Commandments or the golden rule as the possible product of a human community rather than divine inspiration?

Wouldn’t it be more effective just to point people to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot on YouTube?

On porting an ACE program to HTML5 (among other things)

March 1, 2017

In recent times I’ve been thinking about ACE BASIC, a compiler for the Amiga I stopped working on just over 20 years ago; nostalgia’s setting in I guess. A few years ago wrote a bit about ACE in relation to BASIC’s 50th; there’s more in these 1994 and 1997 articles.

As mentioned in the 50th post, a wonderfully thriving community built up around ACE between 1991 and 1996 centred upon an active mailing list and contributions of ideas, example programs and tools. I have been mildly (but pleasantly) surprised by a couple of things since I stopped development:

  1. Continued use of ACE on Amiga hardware and emulators for at least a decade afterward.
  2. An project to modify the code generator for post mid-90s Amiga operating systems and additional targets such as PowerPC and Intel.

Among other things, I’ve been thinking about a re-write for a modern platform or target, e.g. HTML5. The world of the 90s was still very platform-centric, but in the same year I stopped developing ACE, version 1.0 of the Java Development Kit was released, putting the power of Java and its  virtual machine into the hands of eager programmers. Java and JavaScript helped to consolidate the browser as an important platform and to define the shape of web development in a post-CGI (Common Gateway Interface, not Computer Generated Imagery) world.

A new compiler or interpreter is a non-trivial task, especially in my current spare-time-poor state, but I wanted to explore how an ACE program could be rewritten for an HTML5 context.

One of my favourite ACE programs was an implementation of IFS (Iterated Function Systems) to generate simple 2D structures such as ferns, trees, the Sierpinski Triangle and so on. So I started with this. It’s simple yet complex enough to allow for a comparison of approaches.

Here are a few observations on the original IFS ACE source code (ifs.b) and my initial HTML5 port of the code.

  • JavaScript in the browser appears to be faster than ACE on the Amiga. Sure, processors and clock speeds have improved since the mid-90s but ACE generated native 68000 assembly code. Then again, to think of JavaScript as an interpreted language is very simplistic with just in time compilation in widespread use.
  • The ACE code is quite data-centric. DATA statements containing comma-separated values are read into two dimensional arrays, so the original data is not close to where it’s used and it’s not clear what the numbers are associated with. I could have taken this approach in the port, but chose instead to create a data object, a map, close to the point of use, copying the original array names (bad in some cases: a, b, c, okay in others: xoffset, yscale) from the ACE program for use as map key names, to make a correspondence easier to see.
    • This meant first transposing the data (in Excel) so that DATA columns became rows.
    • Preserving the existing DATA organisation could be accomplished by introducing functions such as data() and read() that create and read, respectively, a pool of data values. For future DATA-centric ACE program ports, I’ll try that approach.
  • In ACE, the creation of a menu and its items is simple as shown by the creation of the Special menu below; this menu name is an Amiga convention. Shortcut key letters are optional.
    • menu 1,0,1,"Project"
      menu 1,1,1,"Sierpinski Triangle"
      menu 1,2,1,"Square"
      menu 1,3,1,"Fern"
      menu 1,4,1,"Tree #1"
      menu 1,5,1,"Tree #2"
      menu 1,6,1,"Sunflower"
      menu 1,7,0,"-------------------"
      menu 1,8,1,"Help...","H"
      menu 1,9,1,"About...","A"
  • Compare this with the odd combination of HTML, CSS and JavaScript in this initial attempt at a port.
  • On the other hand, ACE’s (and so AmigaBASIC’s) reliance upon numeric identifiers is almost as unreadable as a collection of DATA statements. The MENU statements above declare the Project menu to be the first (from the left of a menu bar), with each menu item numbered in order of desired appearance and 1 or 0 enabling or disabling the menu item. Subsequent enable/disable operations on menus must refer to the same combination of numeric IDs, e.g. menu 1,2,0 would disable the Square item. Also, menu item selection handling is a bit awkward in ACE.

The code eventually morphed into what I’ve dubbed ACEjs, in the spirit of some other JavaScript library/frameworks. I’m not claiming any novelty here. The idea was to answer the question: how might ACE code look in a modern context? I’m less concerned with slavishly preserving the look and feel of the program, i.e. I’m not trying to make it look like it’s running on an Amiga. I just want to make it functionally equivalent.

Here’s a screenshot of the simple example ifs.b program in ACEjs form:

IFS in ACEjs

I don’t currently have a screenshot of ifs.b running on an Amiga or an emulator.

In any case, the outcome so far is that I have made progress toward an ACE-inspired JavaScript library for HTML5. Here are some key aspects:

  • CSS, DOM, jQuery (so JavaScript) as web assembly language but only JavaScript code needs to be written.
  • Functions like menu(), window(), dialog() manipulate the DOM to add elements (canvas, list etc) via jQuery under the hood.
    • A menu declaration corresponding to the ACE code’s Project menu (with Help and separator items omitted) follows, a key difference being that menu items are paired with callback functions (e.g. see sierpinski below), another being that there is no support for shortcut keys currently:
      • acejs.menu("Project", [
            ["Sierpinski Triangle", sierpinski],
            ["Square", square],
            ["Fern", fern],
            ["Tree #1", tree1],
            ["Tree #2", tree2],
            ["Sunflower", sunflower],
            ["About...", about]
        ]);
    • A window declaration that adds a framed canvas looks like this:
      • wdw_id = acejs.window("IFS", 640, 400);
    • and operations on the window make use of an ID:
      • acejs.clear(wdw_id);
      • acejs.pset(wdw_id, outX, outY, pixelColor);
    • Multiple menus and windows can be created.
    • acejs.css is almost non-existent currently. I’m sure someone who delights in CSS could make it look suitably dark and brooding with their eyes closed. I make no claim to have any special talent in web design.

There’s arguably no need for a compiler or interpreter. JavaScript’s iteration, selection, and expressions are adequate. Having said that, ACEjs could form the basis of a target if I ever chose to write another ACE compiler or interpreter (with all that spare time of mine).

With ACEjs you only have to write an app.js source file for your application and use a standard index.html that brings in your code and whatever else is needed, in particular acejs.css (trivial right now) and acejs.js. The only special thing you have to do is to define an init() function in app.js to be invoked by the framework. The best way to see how this works is to look at the example.

You can either download the contents of the public_html directory and open index.html in your browser or see the example application running here.

In early 2000 I wrote an article for Sky & Telescope (S&T) magazine’s astronomical computation column entitled Scripting: a programming alternative which proposed JavaScript as a suitable alternative to BASIC for astronomical computation, long used by S&T and others to disseminate programs. Even at that time, JavaScript was arguably the only programming language interpreter available on almost every personal computer, by virtue of the ubiquity of web browsers.

In essence, JavaScript had become the equivalent of the BASIC interpreter every old personal computer (formerly called microcomputers, especially in the 80s) once had. I made the example programs from the article available and experimented further; some examples show the original BASIC listing along with the JavaScript implementation.

A variant of the ideas that led to ACEjs are revealed in what I said on this page:

Peter Girard has suggested the creation of an ECMAScript code library for astronomical algorithms.

An idea I’ve had is to write a BASIC (which dialect: GWBASIC, QBasic, etc?) to ECMAScript translator, written in ECMAScript or Java. One could paste BASIC code into a text area on a web page, and have ECMAScript and HTML code generated on the fly. This would make the BASIC code on Sky & Telescope‘s web site available as interactive programs. Or, it could generate a listing, making Peter Girard’s idea of a code library easier to achieve.

Of course, there are now plenty of examples of BASIC interpreters written in JavaScript, e.g. here’s a QBasic implementation that generates bytecode and uses canvas. Then again, as I have noted, my aim was not to slavishly recreate the exact look & feel of the original platform.

S&T showed some initial interest in JavaScript, again in 2005 regarding an orbit viewer page I wrote that combined JavaScript, a Java applet and cross-domain AJAX while Internet Explorer allowed it, and before CORS was a thing.

Of course since then and for all kinds of reasons, JavaScript has come to dominate rich client browser applications, especially after the introduction of AJAX, and has generally become the assembly language of the web. More recently we’ve seen the rise of Node.js, an explosion of JavaScript web frameworks (Angular, React, …), and mobile JavaScript development frameworks like Apache Cordova. JavaScript has good points and bad along with detractors aplenty, but it’s hard to argue with its success.

History has shown that a programming language does not have to be perfect to succeed. I love C, but it’s far from perfect and holes in its type system allow one to, as the saying goes, “shoot one’s foot off”. Additionally, these same holes are responsible for security vulnerabilities in the operating systems we rely upon. Notice, I’m not saying that C itself is responsible (it’s not a person or a company) for exploits of those vulnerabilities; that’s attributable to the moral barrenness of the people involved. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the sum total of mainstream OS-land rewritten in safer languages (Rust, Haskell, …), to save us from ourselves, anytime soon.

But I digress…

I could repurpose ACE to generate JavaScript, but we are living in a time of “programming language plenty”. Creating a new language today should be considered a last resort. Domain Specific Languages, sure. Libraries and frameworks, perhaps. New languages? Looking at what’s available first before reinventing the wheel should be considered a responsibility. Also, a language is no longer enough by itself. You need an ecosystem of tools (IDE, debugger at least) and libraries for anyone to care enough to want to use your shiny new language beyond very simple programs. ACE had a couple of IDEs but no debugger. Heck, I didn’t even use a debugger when writing the compiler! Now I seem to live in source level debuggers. I’m obviously getting soft. 🙂

When I was a junior academic in the computing department at UTAS in the mid-90s, upon learning about my development of ACE, a senior and sometimes less-than-tactful colleague remarked that creating a new language was, as he so delicately put it, “a wank”. I disagreed. ACE was about providing the power of a compiled language for a particular platform (Amiga) to people who knew an interpreted language (AmigaBASIC), wanted to leverage that experience and existing code and didn’t feel confident enough to learn the dominant systems-level language of the time (C). It was also about improving the precursor language.

Now, I would agree that the decision to create a new programming language or library requires some circumspection, at the very least. But the programming language landscape has expanded a lot since the mid-90s. There is of course value in writing an interpreter or compiler, just for the learning as an end in itself and every computer science or software engineering student should do so.

So, in the end: why ACEjs?

In part because I wanted to explore simple ways to write or port a certain class of application (e.g. old ACE programs) to client-side web applications.

Partly out of a sense of nostalgia.

In part because I want to learn more JavaScript, Canvas, jQuery and jQuery-ui and the subtle differences between JavaScript versions.

Mostly, I wanted to get a bundle of ideas out of my system, which I’ve more or less done.

ACEjs is a simple starting point and if it’s useful to me, I’ll continue to improve it; if not, it will happily fade away. So far, I’ve tested it using Chrome version 56 and Safari version 9 and ECMAScript (the underlying JavaScript standard) 5 and 6.

Finally, look in the About box of the example application for a small dedication, also present in the even simpler About box of ifs.b; my wife spent far too long listening to me talk about programming languages and compilers in the 90s. Now the talk is more likely to be about variable stars. Thanks Karen. We both like ferns as well, IFS generated or natural. 🙂

In any case, enjoy. Feedback welcome.