Archive for February, 2011

The Relativity of Wrong

Earlier today I stumbled across a blog that explicitly stated that it had proof for the existence of souls. You don’t really have to look far on the internet to find similar claims, YouTube for instance is full of videos claiming a variety of extraordinary claims, but such claims require extraordinary evidence and they never, ever do.

The thing that made me particularly irate about this soul blog was that it portrayed a long argument that went something like this

“You are starving and poor. You meet a horrible millionaire (no one likes him and he likes no one, he wouldn’t lift a finger to save his own mother)…”

The argument goes on for a while outlining (in a long winded way) that this bad millionaire isn’t evil he just contributes nothing to society and no one would be sad to see him dead. The crux of the argument is “would you kill and rob him if there were no legal consequences and you forgot what you did an hour later (leaving you guilt free). No one would ever find any evidence of it”. The blogger goes on to claim that every one he ever asked would say they would not kill the man. The conclusion from this is what I had a problem with, the blogger concluded that because of this we can rationally conclude that humans have souls and that these souls represent a shared moral compass. This is absolutely wrong.

Now I hope that by the end of this you will realise that I’m not making the claim that there is definitively no such thing as a soul, rather I am making the claim because this person has provided no evidence for his assertion. Firstly he has not shown that every single human has the same response but secondly (and far more importantly) he ignores all other explanations and jumps straight to the idea of a soul.

If we have an observation i.e. all humans presented with this argument have the same response we then seek an explanation. We never assume one however, we list all the logical explanations and then go on to look for evidence for them. The explanation with the strongest evidence is the correct one. This may seem a bit odd because using this method we can arrive at a conclusion that is factually incorrect (perhaps there really are souls but we lack the means to detect them and therefore come to the wrong conclusion). But an answer is rarely wrong simply because it is objectively incorrect, arguably in most walks of life we can never know if something is absolutely right. Answers are wrong if our working out is flawed.

Why is this right to do? If we do not accept the answer with the strongest evidence then we are free to accept any answer. Why stop at souls? Perhaps the reason everybody gave the same answer is because all humans have invisible mind controlling slugs in their brains or because we are all possessed by millionaire worshipping space ghosts. Both of these answers have as much evidence as souls. But even if there was no evidence for any explanation, if we had absolutely no natural explanation for why people all choose the same answer then the answer is unknown! We shouldn’t be afraid to state that things are an unknown, we should embrace it because it gives our knowledge room to grow. Simply slapping a supernatural explanation is a route to intellectual suicide,

“Why do people behave in moral ways? = Souls”

“What makes humans sentient? = Magic”

“Where did life come from? = Ghost party trick gone wrong”

When we forsake the unknown for an answer that has no evidence we are simply performing a lazy exercise to trick ourselves into feeling more knowledgeable than we really are. Replacing the unknown with a supernatural answer just pushes the problem one step back,

“Why do people behave in moral ways? = Souls” should then lead to “Why do souls make people behave in moral ways?”

We’ve simply replaced one question with another, worse than that we’ve replaced a good question with a bad one (bad because it relies on an unproven assumption).

The title of this post refers to a letter written by Isaac Asimov to the Skeptical Enquirer magazine in 1989. You can read it yourself here but the basic message is that not all wrong answers are equally wrong. In ancient times people may have believed the Earth to be flat, this is because to the best of their measurements the curvature of the Earth was zero. If someone had made the claim that the Earth was spheroid back then they would have had no evidence and thus would have arrived at the correct answer but for the wrong reasons. As measurements were done people surmised the Earth to be a sphere. This is wrong as well (its an oblate spheroid) but to the best of their knowledge it was the right answer. Both answers are technically wrong but the first is more wrong than the last, each time the answer gets closer and closer to the truth.

This matters because whilst being correct is nice having a method by which to decide what is right is far better. It is no use to anyone to simply say something that has no evidence, even if we find out later that it is correct the method that they used to come to that conclusion is useless. We cannot use it to determine anything else, however if we take what is right to be that which we have the strongest evidence for then we can accomplish a great deal. Indeed our civilisation has been built on the back of this idea, we take the answer with the best evidence and use it to great effect. Later through a continual beating of study this answer may be shown to have an anomaly and from that one loose thread the entire edifice of that theory can be pulled apart and made anew. This is what allows us to march onwards, not slapping the supernatural on everything, not cherry picking evidence to support our superstitions but accepting that which has strong evidence and using it to better our lives.

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Why don’t I live on the moon?

I’ve just watched a fascinating animation of the international space station being assembled. That got me thinking and next thing I knew I was hammering out a blog post.

The International Space Station, keeping man in orbit since October 2000

When I was young I always wanted to be an astronaut. When I was four I went on holiday to Florida and visited the space centre there, from then on I was hooked. I loved rockets and shuttles to the extent that even now if I see a rocket launch on TV I get glow of pride and awe that our species has managed to do this. In my pre-teen childhood I was quite into all the traditionally geeky space stuff like Star Trek and other shows which now if I ever see annoy the hell out of me for two reasons;

Firstly, any TV show that calls itself “science-fiction” typically takes a white-western conservative culture and bolts on shiny tech.

Secondly, flying off to other planets isn’t a dream that is going to be available to us any time soon.

Every now and then I meet someone who admits that they believe the moon landings were a hoax. My second response to this (my first being to try to beat them to death with their own internal organs) is to ask why they think this way. Aside from flag waving, shadows and reflections the only interesting question that is asked is “why haven’t we been back?” The last Apollo mission was nearly forty years ago and since then there hasn’t been any grandiose feats to rival those missions. We live in a world where technological development appears to progress almost exponentially. Moore’s law is a good example of this (transistor numbers on computer chips double every two years) and we see it in our daily lives. The laptop we bought that was state-of-the-art last week was barely second best when we got it home from the store and by now deserves a dusty shelf in some museum. Now I’m not suggesting that space science has not progressed in the last forty years but it’s important to note that in that time space science has not yet developed to the point where it can give us cheap space travel.

At the time of the space race NASA was costing the US 4% of the federal budget. Out of every dollar the US spent 4 cents went to NASA and with this they got to the moon. This is thing about manned space travel, its hideously expensive, it takes a significant cut of a very rich country’s budget and it gives no profit back. I’m not suggesting that we should only commit to projects that have economic benefit (far from it) but the fact is that any manned space travel project requires a fortune in surplus funds (Note: the US didn’t go to the moon because they had some spare change and a twinkle in their eye, they did it for competition and the potential dangers of having a USSR military dominance in orbit).

Space travel is inspiring, it’s romantic but above all its bloody expensive. But all is not lost to the warcries of “cuts”, “audit” and “profit”. As technologies progress and economies grow we may find ourselves again in the position where we have the capability and the will to strive out into space with manned travel. Mars has always been seen as the next step for human exploration but a Mars mission is a world more difficult than a lunar one. Once a ship leaves the protection of the Earth’s magnetosphere (which the moon is within) the intensity of radiation exposure from the sun massively increases. Even more of a problem is the fuel and engine technology it takes to get there, the probes we send to Mars take years and are only making a one way trip.

Will VASIMR rockets like this take us to Mars and beyond?

All current rockets use chemical fuel as a propellent, but this gives a very limited burn time before the fuel runs out. With an equal fuel:rocket ratio our current technologies can give only a few minutes of thrust (for more info see “specific impulse“). There are other technologies being used, some probes use ion thrusters which can burn for months but they give very very low thrust (0-60 in about four days). However all that may be soon to change, the next generation in rocket technology will soon be launching to the international space station. In 2014 a VASIMR rocket will be attached to the side of the station, this type of rocket promises to give high thrust with very long burn times (hours-days). It does this by heating its fuel until it turns into a superhot plasma that it then shoots out of the back of the engine with a magnetic field. If this engine passes testing and gains investment we could be seeing a wave of VASIMR craft capable of taking us back to the moon and across to Mars in just months of travel time rather than years. In addition to this there have been a sprinkling of other technologies proposed such as a plasma bubble generator that would protect the ship from radiation by making a strong magnetic shield to deflect it, and the always jaw-dropping proposal of building a tower to orbit.

Space science isn’t as attractive as it used to be, the middle generation grew up with the images of moonlandings and shuttle launches. We’ve got budget cuts and Justin Bieber. But this isn’t the end of man’s story in space, our science marches on and when conditions are favourable we’ll be able to invest in technologies that will get us back out there. I’d like to think that this lull we are in is just the first interval in a long epic play…and the second act is starting soon.

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Who am I, who are you and who the hell is the guy I was?


We all use it, we all have a name and we all identify ourselves by some means. The question of “who am I” is multifaceted. Am “I” the meaty object standing in front of you? Am “I” the emergent property of a squidgy organ in the head of that meaty object? Am “I” the sum of all of the perceptions of me?

We tend to use all three (with an emphasis on the first two) but I propose that we can’t really pinpoint what is “us”. I’ve always been really fascinated with identity, practically it’s very useful. You can call me Ryan and point to somebody else and call them Brian and we would know who you were talking about, the interesting thing for me is that you can point to a picture I have from five years ago and call that “Ryan”. You could do it to a ten year old picture; you could even do it to a picture of my mother holding a baby that’s just been named “Ryan”. Therein lies the dilemma for me, I accept that “I” am this body in front of you (a body whose physical functions result in the expression of a mind) but am “I” the boy in those pictures?

To show why this is an issue I’m going to borrow an old question in philosophy called the Ship of Theseus (I may not relay the story faithfully but the premise is the same). Theseus goes off sailing in his ship; his ship is made from a set number of wooden components. Over time these wooden parts rot one by one. Every time they rot they are removed and replaced with a new peace made from fresh wood. Let’s posit that there are one thousand parts that make up the ship and by the time he comes home every component of the ship has had to have been replaced. In other words there is no part of that ship that was technically there the day the ship left. The big question is “is it still the same ship?”

Repaired piece by piece is this still Theseus's ship?

This is a hard question. Often the first response is that it isn’t the exact same ship, that the act of replacing bits of it over time has made the ship different. I have another version of this thought experiment, what happens if every time a wooden component is replaced it is replaced with a completely different part? Imagine a ship made from one thousand wooden planks and every time they rot they are replaced with metal, when the sail tears and the mast rots they are replaced with a propeller and when the navigator drinks too much and falls overboard he’s replaced with GPS. Is that the same ship? In this example I imagine most people would say it is not and there are justifiable reasons for believing that. But this is more than just a fun thought game.

Every second of every day we are dying, tens of thousands of cells die and are recycled or shed from our skin (a lot of house dust is dead skin). This is no big problem because we replace all these dying parts. We do this by eating food, digesting it and using it to rebuild parts of us. Over a large enough span of time all things in our body are replaced, cells die and are replaced and importantly every component in those cells are replaced too. I’ve heard various numbers of how long this takes but it doesn’t really matter exactly how long it is merely that at some point in your life there are no atoms in your body that were there at the start of your life. This is the Ship of Theseus acting in real life and it’s a very interesting thing to think about, the body that people identified as “Ryan” at the beginning of this identity has nothing left in the body that is now identified as “Ryan”.

This phenomenon applies to our personality too, over time we develop new behaviours and loose old ones to the point where if we were to place Ryan at ten years next to Ryan at twenty years next to Ryan at one hundred years and you will struggle to see that they used to be the same person. Am I really the same “Ryan” if I share no matter nor mind with this past Ryan? Are we not strangers? And am I accountable for this strangers actions? The point I am trying to press is what is “I”?

An Evil Genius stealing your atoms, one by one

Lastly there is one more thought experiment I would like to propose; imagine there are three identical hotel rooms next to each other (left, middle and right). You go to bed in the middle room and at some point in the night some Evil Genius sneaks in and freezes your body. Then he or she takes you apart atom by atom. They start by taking one atom from the bottom of your foot and take it from the middle room to the room on the left. In this identical room they place this atom in the corresponding place in the bed that it was in the middle room. This Evil Genius then does this again but this time places the second atom in the room on the right. This act continues with you being dismantled atom by atom with each atom going to the left or the right room until finally there are no atoms left in the middle room and exactly 50% in both the left and right. Where there is a gap between atoms in the left room there is an atom to be found in the right room and vice versa. As one last act the Evil Genius fills in the gaps of both these two bodies with atoms from stock and warms both bodies up before fleeing the scene.

As the alarm clock goes off in both rooms the two bodies wake up and stumble out of the room only to see another them down the corridor. Which one is you?

I’ve asked a lot of questions here and not provided any answers but I hope they are all questions that have got you thinking.

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YouTube channels of worthy note

Recently I’ve been quiet busy and haven’t had as much time to think about or write long and detailed blog posts, they tend to take a lot of energy. So in the mean time I’m going to point out some very good channels on YouTube dedicated to the debunking of pseudo-science and the promotion of science. Cutting to the chase;


Dedicated to Science and Education this channel was made famous for its “Why do people laugh at creationists” series. Over 30 videos are in this series (about ten minutes long each) and they really are great at explaining both how to recognise pseudo-science and educating on matters like the history of life and the Earth. Other stuff on the channel ranges from O.K to a bit irrelevant but I can’t recommend WDPLAC highly enough, I advise watching the first episode at least just to get a feel.


A long-time British journalist writing for private eye, the Sunday times and Newscientist magazine (amongst many). A brilliant and thorough series of climate science can be found on this channel complete with references to scientific publications (a thing to be quite valued in this age of cut-and-pasting of internet opinions). Check out his playlists to see the various works, his style and consistency is a very rare thing, there’s pretty much no myth surrounding climate change that hasn’t been addressed so if you’d like to learn more about this very pressing issue visit potholer54.


Channels like this are part of what inspire me to blog, dedicated to debunking fringe ideas such as anti-vaccine, raw-food and germ theory denialists (to name but a few) this channel gives concise information with references to check for oneself. I’ve highlighted before that in the times we live in there are more accepted (even high-street) pseudo-sciences than ever before. It’s important to learn about things like this so we can make an informed decision about how to live our lives with or without these things. This channel addresses some of the most controversial issues of recent years such as the MMR vaccine and GM crops, it’s well worth a visit.

That’s all for now, I don’t want to go on and on listing videos or channels to watch. I hope you find these channels enlightening and interesting. They’ve educated me more than I can measure over the years on issues I would have never come in contact with or indeed never have thought count have existed (who would have thought there would be germ-denialists in 2011?). Enjoy.

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