Thursday, November 20, 2014

McLaren P1 vs Porsche 918



From Evo Magazine.

WARNING: SPOILER.

It seems a bit ironic to me that McLaren would care so much about the outcome of this comparison by having Evo retry the time attack using Trofeo tires, when they themselves downplayed the relevance of the P1's exact ''under 7 minutes'' Nurburgring lap time (which they still haven't released). The P1 is still an astonishing machine. But I fancy the 918 more. It just seems like the more groundbreaking technological achievement, given everything it can do (not to mention being just as fast as the P1 around this track on comparable tires) and just looks a whole lot prettier than the gaudy McLaren (though I admit that the black car looks absolutely wicked from some angles). And it sounds better, too. Still, I'd love to see a completely stripped out version of the 918 (that is, no removable roof, no luxuries of any kind, and bugger-all sound deadening).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Do people ''choose'' hell? Or does God?

Christians and Muslims often claim that people who reject their respective gods will go to hell and suffer for all eternity. They claim that this is just and that it's not actually God's ''punishment'', but rather a ''personal choice'' that non-believers make, and that these nonbelievers have no one to blame but themselves since they cannot plead ignorance (that is, they were ''warned'' and aren't ignorant of the possibility of going to hell).

This must surely rank as one of the most despicable and disgusting of religious conceits. A few moment's consideration will show why this is so.

Consider a mother who says the following after her son Sam throws a fork at the dinner table:

''We had told Sam that if he doesn't keep his corner of the dinner table neat, he would go without dessert.''

So far, so good. The parent can at least argue that they're being reasonable here, by threatening to withhold dessert if the child behaves like a brat.

But now, look at what happens when this mother uses the logic of those who subscribe to the hell doctrine:

''Sam made his choice, and so I had no option other than to allow my husband to take Sam out to the shed, where he was tortured and burnt. Sam CHOSE not to obey me, which means that what followed was his doing, not mine. My morality as a parent means that I'm actually powerless in giving Sam a different set of options. Thus, the options of dessert and torture were the only ones available. I did warn him, you know.''

If this is horrible and disgusting, then why do so many people think that it's okay if God (supposedly ''all powerful'' and ''merciful'') is constrained between granting access to heaven or allowing someone to be tortured for going against his commands? He apparently had ''no choice'' but to adopt this options list. It never seems to enter into the mind of the apologist that God could simply extinguish the soul of the person who rejected him, saving them eternal suffering, while also denying them the reward of heaven. Instead, they adopt the logic of the sadistic and mindless parents in the above example, and assume that the fault lies squarely with the person in question.

Why did God CHOOSE for these to be the options, in other words? He could have chosen otherwise. It's easy to imagine him using his great mercy to pick one of millions of far more gentle alternatives that would still be have been consistent with reward in heaven for his followers while also denying these rewards to his his naysayers. Instead, God chose to adopt an options list of the most miserable and brutal extremes. This isn't the invention of a supreme being. It's the invention of small-minded men intent on control and subjugation.

Funny, also, how different religions have the hell doctrine. Since they can't all be right, that means that most of them, at the very least, must be WRONG about the hell doctrine, and that it's undoubtedly a human-invented threat system when it comes to those religions. So the notion that hell is used by people to scare other people rather than being a God-ordained command isn't speculation, it's a necessary FACT, at least with respect to the religions which are false. Since Christianity must be wrong if Islam isn't, and vice versa, then one of these religions must, as a matter of necessity, be using hell as a human-derived threat system. But people are expected to pick out the correct religion from this swamp of competing claims based upon some uninspired, faulty and obnoxious ''holy texts'' that are spectacularly wrong on a whole swathe of issues. If you happen to be Muslim, and it's because your parents indoctrinated you into the faith, then you get to go to heaven (assuming that Islam is the correct religion), even though you put no actual effort into coming to the conclusion that Islam is the correct religion and simply went along with what your parents said. It also doesn't matter if you've never read another holy text to compare it to the Koran. Likewise for Christians and their beliefs and the Bible, assuming that Christianity is the correct religion. And so on for all other religions that have the hell doctrine. Sincerity and investigation don't seem to matter to any of the gods of these faiths; mere belief and obedience will do. Those who reject these doctrines as idiotic and insulting to human dignity and intelligence, on the other hand, may, according to the ''morality'' of these faiths, be tortured forever in a fiery pit, simply for the ''crime'' of wondering whether all these versions of superstitious backwardness might be false, given their small-minded similarities and the absurdly human-centric pettiness of the divine beings being unctuously paraded by believers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Marvin Minsky, saying it like a boss


Why it's more glorious to have evolved than to have been created.

Further thoughts on extraterrestrials

In many popular depictions of ET - whether they are shown as hostile or otherwise - there seems to be an implicit assumption that the aliens are culturally and politically homogeneous. Thus, when we speak of ET civilisations, we often assume planetary civilisations governed by a social order that is hegemonic for the entire species. But is this a good assumption that we should actually make when thinking about ET?

There are reasons for and against it. On the one hand, we might expect that any star-fairing species has necessarily achieved a degree of unity that allows it to collectively invest its material and intellectual resources in deep space travel. If ET is travelling vast distances throughout the cosmos, we may surmise that the technological challenge and the societal burden posed by this will be considerably more severe than that posed by travel merely within a solar system. Thus, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to suppose that these civilisations are operating at closer to what we would recognise as planetary hegemony (the nature of this hegemony is up for discussion. It could be political, ideological, religious, or economic, or any of combination of these. Or something we haven't yet conceived of).

On the other hand, there could be reasons for interstellar travel that suggest a non-hegemonic situation. Star travellers could be partisans in a brutal power struggle, and might be atypical of their native civilisation. Even if a civilisation started out with a social and moral hegemony and uniformity, this might not last long once it ventures out to the stars. Civilisations could fracture among multiple star systems, with different factions vying for control of the whole, and with other factions struggling to break away. Ancient hatreds could reignite, or entirely new ones crop up. Basically, there's no reason that ET should not have its own internal conflicts - conflicts that might spill out into space and shape the way that the species deals with and engages in space travel. Having the social order to avoid internal wars on a planet isn't a guarantee of this order being extrapolated across planets. So while it might be necessary that a species stops killing its own kind in wars and genocides in order to initiate interstellar travel, there's no reason that this situation must persist. Peace and good intent might be only prerequisites for getting to interstellar travel, but need not be requisite feature forever after. With an entirely new frontier opened up, presenting a whole raft of unprecedented opportunities for wealth, corruption and power, space exploration might even amplify the ugly tendencies that the planetary order had supposedly suppressed.

This could totally happen. Also: the bastards.

One of the reasons that the Fermi Paradox seems like a genuine paradox is that, given the biological imperative for colonisation, we should have seen evidence of the colonists by now. By some estimates, it would take a civilisation less than 5 million years, even using slower-than-light space travel, to comprehensively colonise the Milky Way using von Nuemann probes to terraform planets. That would seem like a long time to us (humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos that existed roughly as long ago, and it's hard to imagine a civilisation lasting this long, especially when so many human empires and nations have been so fleeting), but on a cosmological time scale, this is miniscule. Importantly, too, different species may have different perceptions of time, or have different ways of dealing with it (hibernation sleep, extreme longevity, virtual reality, or the effects of so-called ''time dilation'' may have profound implications for this).

We should remember that colonisation, even if it isn't the best strategy for all civilisations, will surely be viewed by some of them as having great potential benefit, and therefore conceivably worth pursuing (but read my previous post for a countervailing tendency that might preclude aggressive colonisation). Once started, and coupled with the drive to be the first to claim prime real estate, colonisation can have its own momentum, especially since the colonising civilisation will be wary of the possibility of a competitor who is thinking along precisely the same lines. ''Colonise like hell'', and even ''attack first'', might be good rules of thumb in this race for more celestial bodies. This could therefore have the frightening consequence that, were we to encounter ET, it would necessarily be war-like, as only such a species would have won out in this galactic competition (note that it wouldn't necessarily be the case that the species is ''biologically aggressive''. Rather, it's that once a civilisation has embarked on a program of colonisation, it is compelled by the structural pressures of the project to pursue war-like policies). In other words, any ET we encounter will be either the winners in an ancient cosmic war, or they will be the first kids on the block (and will certainly be intent on remaining the top dogs). It's therefore conceivable that the solution to the Paradox is that one species or civilisation has exterminated all other takers, but are staying their hand with respect to comparatively backward species like our own - that is, so long as we show no designs on the rest of the galaxy. We are therefore being monitored, and indeed quarantined.

There might come a time when our technological progress will begin to worry our cosmic betters (perhaps it already has, with our invention of thermonuclear weapons and increasingly sophisticated computers, not to mention the beginnings of advanced space propulsion systems), who might by then be very tempted to cull yet another troublesome world perpetually engaged in its own endless conflicts. ET might well prefer that we never leave Earth's cradle, or that at most, we only colonise Mars and Titan. It's less clear, though, why such a civilisation would conceal its existence from us, as it can be imagined that intimidation would be a viable option for ensuring the species' place at the top of the galactic food chain. A possibility is that the concealment is there to ensure that we choose for ourselves the path we take, and that the overlords can see us doing so. If we choose scientific investigation, rationality and the peaceful exploration of space, the overlords may welcome us with open arms and invite us to their table as custodians of the galaxy. If we choose something less lofty, and if we retain our hateful divisions and arrogant short-sightedness, we get cut down to size. By hiding themselves from us, the aliens ensure that knowledge of their presence is not contaminating or biasing our decisions, thus allowing them to verify that whether we're worthy of a galactic role.

As alluded to earlier, while civilisations can spread, they can also crumble. For one thing, the logistics of managing a civilisation spanning an entire galaxy are probably unimaginably daunting. In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, we see a Galactic Empire implode, the victim of its own hubris and moral and scientific stagnation, eventually reducing it to a litany of squabbling and barbaric enclaves ruled by feudal lords and petty tyrants. We could well be living in the midst of a ruined alien empire. Maybe, then, the solution to the Paradox is this: there's seemingly no one out there because everyone gave up on empire and descended into technological and social decay. Where once there was a mighty ocean of light, there are now only islands of darkness, perhaps with no memory of their former greatness.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Thoughts on 'first contact' with extraterrestrials

(Note: here, I am assuming that none of the many purported sightings of alien craft and extraterrestrial beings that have been reported by countless people are accurate, though I'm open to the possibility that some of them have been. For the sake of argument, though, I'll assume that none of them have been)

Many people have thought about and imagined what first contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation would be like, and indeed what ET would be like. Will they be hostile? Will they be friendly? Will they be indifferent? Will we even recognise them?

I'd like to suggest that, were we ever to encounter ET, we would be encountering not explorers, or saviours, or aggressors, but environmental refugees. Two basic assumptions underpin this. The fist is that any intelligent organisms organised into technological civilisations, wherever they are found throughout the universe, will be concerned primarily with their own survival and the continuity and security of their species. The second assumption is that there is no way to breach the light-speed limit. Whatever technological breakthroughs that are made by a civilisation, they will always be constrained by the need to travel below the speed of light. These might seem like unconnected assumptions, but in fact they lead to an interesting possibility that shapes and constrains the nature of any star-faring expedition, as well as the behaviour of said civilisation in its dealings with other lifeforms throughout the cosmos.

A planetary civilisation, if it is in danger of extinction, will try to leave first its planet and to occupy and perhaps terraform other planets in its star system. Failing this, or after this option has been expended, travel to other star systems will become necessary.

Now, assuming that there is an absolute upper limit to the speed of spacecraft, and given the enormous distances between stars, the specifications for such a ship will be brutally constrained. Firstly, given that the home planet of the aliens will be in peril, they will presumably need to transport a sizeable number of their kind on the ship or ships. This will probably mean that the ship will need to be huge in its own right, and may even need to be a 'generation ship' - that is, multiple generations of aliens will live on the ship, which would act as a sort of flying city.

This all leads on to the second point. Given that the aliens can't just hop back and forth among the stars whenever they like, but need giant, resource-hungry ships that must be in space for decades, if not centuries, coupled with the fact that the very future of the species hinges upon the safety of the ship, the aliens will therefore adopt an extremely cautious approach to this phase of their space travel, and will do everything in their power to keep the ship safe. This will include, importantly, avoiding star systems that already have planets on which life has evolved. Even if the star-faring aliens are immeasurably more advanced than their neighbours, risk-minimisation will be a core feature of their space program. They won't be advertising their presence in what, for all they know, could be a jungle. They will therefore strive to conceal their presence, give occupied star systems a wide berth, and colonise real estate that, to the best of their knowledge, hasn't been claimed. Remember: they're not sending these ships out for scientific exploration or for establishing trade relations; they're sending them out to facilitate the continuity of their species and their civilisation. One wrong move could spell the end for them. They will therefore, understandably, tend to be highly paranoid and skittish. First contact might be seen by them as a disaster, as all their best laid plans and their momentous preparations could be put at risk. Certainly, they'd be wise to avoid species like our own, which would no doubt be viewed by many more advanced civilisations as a violent and foolish lot. Humans have been locked in a perpetual arms race with each other since antiquity, and any aliens that were flying through space for decades on end would be wary that, even if their own weapons were much more devastating than our own, we might catch up in the interim. Perhaps reminded of their own follies, they would view Earth as a no-go zone.

Therefore, if we did encounter ET, it might not last very long. They might turn tail and run at the first whiff of us. Our very existence, in other words, might be the best insurance for our own safety from interplanetary aggression. But, as I alluded to, their paranoia would make it extremely difficult to spot them in the first place. Their powers of concealment could well be far ahead of their powers of destruction.

Incidentally, something like this could be the solution for the Fermi Paradox (''Where is everyone if life is supposedly so widespread in the universe?''), assuming that it is a real paradox. It also has a rather depressing outcome. The universe might be teeming with life, and it might have countless civilisations - but these civilisations would all be trying to not only conceal their presence, but actively avoiding one another. Even if first contact is established, it would be brief, resulting in one of the parties fleeing almost immediately. In other words, the universe might contain billions of civilisations, but, due to the desire of each of them to survive, no communication or culture exchange is viable.

Pretty sad, eh?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism

by Coel Hellier

Original article here.

Summary

  • Nazi racial ideology was creationist. Hitler considered that the different human races had been created separately. The Aryan race was the “master” race, created as “God’s highest handiwork”, the other races (Jewish, Black, Slav, etc) were literally “sub-human”. The races had been created by God in their current form (humans had not evolved from other animals).
  • Nazi ideology pointed to both artificial and natural selection as a mechanism preserving the health of a species by weeding out the weaker and less able. This struggle for existence countered a natural tendency for things to decay. To the Nazis this mechanism preserved species in their original (God created) form. They did not consider that natural selection operating over long periods of time caused species to evolve; they regarded the species as fixed.
  • Hitler considered that allowing interbreeding between the separately created races would destroy the Aryan race, and thus be a sin against God. He considered it a high imperative to preserve the Aryan race in its primordial excellence. In Mein Kampf he advocated that Jews should be celibate to prevent such interbreeding. Later he developed a “final solution” to this “problem”.
  • Nazi ideologues strongly opposed most Darwinian concepts; they rejected macro-evolution, they rejected the common origin of the different human races, they rejected human evolution from animals. They rejected such doctrines which they saw as depriving man of his soul. They banned Darwin’s works and called his theories an “English sickness”.
  • Hitler saw the Christian churches as having been corrupted by Jews, starting with Paul. He regarded Jesus as an Aryan, and wanted to restore what he saw as the original message of Jesus. The Nazis formed their own church, the “German Christians”, and their own theological institutes, promoting the idea of Jesus as an Aryan. Hitler despised atheism and had “stamped it out” on taking power with the disbanding of the German Freethinker’s League. 

Continue reading here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Atheism explodes in Saudi Arabia, despite state-enforced ban

From GlobalPost. Article by Carlye Murphy:

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — In this country known as the cradle of Islam, where religion gives legitimacy to the government and state-appointed clerics set rules for social behavior, a growing number of Saudis are privately declaring themselves atheists.

The evidence is anecdotal, but persistent.

“I know at least six atheists who confirmed that to me,” said Fahad AlFahad, 31, a marketing consultant and human rights activist. “Six or seven years ago, I wouldn’t even have heard one person say that. Not even a best friend would confess that to me.”

A Saudi journalist in Riyadh has observed the same trend.

“The idea of being irreligious and even atheist is spreading because of the contradiction between what Islamists say and what they do,” he said.

Continue reading here.


And a big shout out to any readers in Saudi Arabia. Keep chipping away at the unjust and irrational structures in your country. Cracks will eventually appear, as they always must when people become fed up with being ruled over by stupid and ignorant men.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The difference between tolerance and respect

It's often assumed by religious people that other people who do not share their beliefs are obliged to 'respect' their religion. This is a curious assumption on the part of believers. The main question to be asked is: why should this shield of respect protect religion but not politics, science or economics?

Imagine the following scenario: a libertarian, a communist, a conservative, or a fascist tells you that you're obliged to respect their ideology. If you don't, you're being 'intolerant', regardless of whether you find the ideology's tenets repulsive or morally unjustifiable. It's easy to see why you're not at all obliged to respect something that you, in your heart of hearts, view with disdain. Legally or morally, you aren't obliged to actually respect such an ideology. Few people are so arrogant as to assume that ideologies are to be afforded automatic respect just by virtue of existing.

Now imagine another scenario: a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, or a Zoroastrian tells you that you're obliged to respect their religion. This scenario, while also ridiculous on logical and moral grounds, is somehow imagined to be a justified norm. Lamentably, it is a norm in most societies, because religion, unlike political or economic ideology, or scientific opinion, is presumed to deserve automatic respect. If you profess not to respect a particular religion, or religion in general, you're portrayed as an extremist and of being 'intolerant'.

But note how lack of respect for a religion is not the same thing as intolerance towards it. Religious people who would paint others as intolerant should learn the definition of the terms 'respect' and 'tolerance'. One can be tolerant of religion - that is, one can tolerate its existence, and agree to observe the rights of religious people to worship as they choose - while not actually respecting religion itself, just as one can be tolerant of different political ideologies and its adherents, while loathing the ideologies in question.

Why does religion, then, get a free pass when it comes to respect? Many of its doctrines have proved useful in facilitating the wholesale violation of the rights of non-believers; it has contributed to ruining countless lives with its distorted and misogynistic sexual recommendations and constraints; it has facilitated the rape and abuse of children at the hands of frustrated clergy who cannot find a healthy outlet for their own sexual repression; its adherents often preach ignorant and harmful propaganda about women; many of its followers have hurled bile and hatred against homosexuals, who often register as only barely human in the eyes of the most fanatical and pious observers of faith; it has inspired honest and sincere people to enrich con-men and swindlers who exploit the gullibility and good intentions of their flock as a means to accumulate more earthly pleasures and possessions; and it has stunted the scientific and rational curiosity of countless other people with stupefying and miserable creationist fiction. In other words, people working in the service of their religion have often been utterly intolerant, and indeed utterly disrespectful, of others who do not share their beliefs, and have even been intolerant of their own children acquiring a more sophisticated view of the universe and the world. Yet, it is assumed that nonbelievers are obliged to not only tolerate religion, but even to respect it. Children, for their part, are expected to be thankful for having had their imaginations and intellectual horizons stamped out in the service of invisible men living in magical cloud cities.

My question is: how is automatic respect for religion in any way a good thing?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The questionable assumptions of theistic teleology

Dubious analogies

Many people cannot abide the possibility that complex biological entities could have arisen by natural processes. They assume that the complexity is ‘obviously’ too much too be explainable by such processes, and that a supernatural power must surely have be necessary. Just as a watch is too complex to have formed by itself, with the materials coming together, so a bird or a lion must have been designed by an intelligent designer. However, the analogy breaks down very quickly. Firstly, the believer assumes it only goes one way: that because of the complexity of a watch and a biological entity, we can extrapolate and say that the latter came into being thanks to the volition of a designer because it did so in the former. But why stop at complexity? If we’re going to extrapolate from man-made objects to biological ones, why not do the reverse? For example, a car is made largely of metal and it many of its parts were made on an assembly line. But this doesn’t mean that there’s any a priori reason to suppose that biological entities are made of metal and its parts were made on an assembly line. There are countless features about cars and watches and computers that are different to those of organisms. Why single out complexity and assume that these must have come out of the same process of conscious design?

The analogy fails further when we consider that organisms don’t, as a matter of observable fact, get designed by intelligent designers. We only observe them making somewhat similar copies of themselves, and, in the case of sexually reproducing organisms, in a rather convoluted and time-consuming way. Man-made objects, on the other hand, are different: in this case, we KNOW that they’re designed by humans because we have innumerable records, observations, and anecdotes about them being designed. With organisms, only extrapolations are offered. Why assume that we can extrapolate from what applies to man-made objects to organisms if the observed process by which organisms come about is so alien to our way of creating things? And why assume that this process is irrelevant to how these organisms came about in the first placed?


One intelligent designer or many?

If people were really serious about the design analogy, they might incorporate more of the practices we humans use in designing and manufacturing objects into the analogy. Yet, many believers are monotheists who believe that a sole God designed and brought the world into existence. But why? If the whole basis for saying that organisms are intelligently designed is their complexity and likeness to machines, why not assume that a whole gaggle of deities was involved in the design of the biosphere? After all, humans rarely design anything of real complexity all by themselves. The normal practise is for teams of engineers and stylists to collaborate. Furthermore, conscious design processes are fraught with error and uncertainty and involve feedback cycles that build upon previous knowledge (incidentally, this is actually a good analogy for biological evolution), yet all we ever hear from intelligent design advocates is how ‘perfect’ organisms are.

Another point is that, even if we assume that all the world's biological systems were designed by a single designer, there is no reason at all to think that this designer also created the universe. He might as well be himself the product of a design process - certainly if we assume that complexity 'requires' a designers -  in which even more powerful and intelligent designers designed him, and so on. From the designer of the universe to the designer of life on earth, there might be 10,000 designers, or only one, or a trillion, or five hundred million. Saying that organisms 'look' as though they're designed tells us nothing whatsoever about whether that designer designed anything else in the universe, whether he worked in a team of other designers, a whether he is or was subordinate to other designers, or whether he is even still alive.


Why assume that the designer is intelligent?

Is it not conceivable that the deity who designed the universe was, in fact, a bumbling fool who happened, after endless iterations of failure, to one day chance upon a half-decent design, and not the genius he is always made out to be? God is supposed by traditional theology to be infinitely wise, yet the only attribute necessary to create the world as it is would be infinite patience or boredom.


Why design anything?

Finally, we can fairly ask why a deity, let alone an all-powerful, perfect God would design anything in the first place. Most of the species that have ever existed on Earth are now long gone. What purpose did they satisfy for the deity while they were alive? Theists claim that God is perfect, yet why would a perfect God need anything outside of himself? If God is perfect, shouldn't he have no desire or need of anything? Humans design and build things to satisfy their needs and wants; a car is designed to move people to and from different locations, a nuclear power plant is design to supply electricity to thousands of homes, a computer is designed to rapidly perform calculations. In other words, they design things to overcome a lack. Is this what motivated God to design humanity? But what of all those other organisms, especially the ones that died billions of years before humans even existed?

All of these shortcomings show that there are gaping holes in the whole notion of theistic ''intelligent design'', even at the basic conceptual level and even before we consider biological evolution. This is because the assumptions of theistic intelligent design are faulty, incomplete, and/or logically unjustified.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The difference between climate and weather

Neil deGrasse Tyson on this important distinction in the current climate change saga.


Video uploaded by National Geographic on YouTube.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mechanical ballet

Just because it's cool.




Video by YouTuber kohnen917.

Why doesn't God show himself to us?

Many atheists have asked Christians and other religious people, ''Why doesn't your God show himself to us and remove all doubt?'' Often, the reply is something along the lines of either ''He has shown himself to you, in all the splendor and intricacy of the natural world'' or ''He has shown himself to you, in the words of the Bible (or Koran, or whatever other holy text).

There are problems with both responses. Firstly, the intricacy of the natural world can be accounted for by natural processes, which we're learning more and more about everyday. Secondly, the Bible and other holy texts are rather banal when you read them. They contain nothing that wasn't known at the time, and they could easily have been authored by normal human beings (indeed, they're been shown to have been authored by normal, and in some cases, rather mediocre human beings). They borrow concepts, narratives, even characters from other holy texts. In other words, they can't be seriously considered as evidence for supernatural beings.

But there's a deeper problem. Theists are often fond of saying that the relationship between God and humanity is like that between a father and a child. They claim that if we reject God, that is like rejecting one's father. But is this really so? Isn't it the responsibility of a parent to not keep his child guessing as to his existence? Why does the child have a responsibility to reach out to the parent rather than vice versa? What kind of a relationship is it when a parent leaves enough doubt as to his existence that the child may well reasonably surmise that the parent doesn't exist? And what sort of a relationship is it when the evidence left behind by the parent is of such a kind that things in the world can easily account for them, and one must have faith, of all things, that this parent exists?

Also, many people have sincerely tried to talk to God but have heard no response of any kind. Is this what a parent-child relationship is supposed to be? How much sincerity, exactly, is required for God to reply to his children? Why does he respond so readily to some, but not at all to others? Why does he respond to many who are not particularly good people, but not at all to others who are exceptional people? Some people have reported speaking to God on their first attempt, yet others spend a better part of a life time trying to do the same, and to no avail.

For a being who is purported to love all his children, he seems to have a callous disregard for maintaining a relationship with them.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Using humour and logic to fight homophobia

The disease of homophobia remains widespread and rife, in spite of the major advances that have been made in changing people's attitudes towards homosexuality. Homophobia is based upon irrational and largely religious doctrines.

Here are some questions that homophobes often ask, and the responses you can give:

''Men shouldn't be engaging in these unnatural acts.''

''Hang on...so you care and worry about what other men's penises rub up against even when it doesn't hurt you or anyone else? Isn't that a little bit gay?''


''Homosexuals are less than animals when they engage in these unnatural acts.''

''Over 100 species of animals are known to show homosexual behaviours. Only one is known to show deranged and mindless hatred towards those members who show such behaviours.'' (this is one adapted from a quote by Stephen Fry)


''I hate homosexuals because they engage in disgusting acts.''

''So by your logic, you hate people who eat foods you find disgusting. Do you also want to ban these foods and imprison these people on these grounds?''


''Homosexuality is a threat to traditional marriage.''

''Please name the homosexuals who want to stop you from getting married to a member of the opposite sex.''


''If we don't fight homosexuality, it will spread and everyone will become gay.''

''Please, tell me how it can spread if homosexuals don't tend to produce children. You said that it's unnatural, and yet you're afraid that it can easily 'spread'.''


''Homosexuality is unnatural.''

''Ironic, coming from someone who thinks that marriage is natural and that premarital sex is bad. You support unnatural sexual restrictions all the time.''


''If we allow homosexuality to become mainstream, eventually even pedophilia will become okay.''

''What connection do adults engaging in consenting sexual activity have with the sexual abuse of children? Incidentally, isn't your clergy rather prone to making excuses and evasions for sexual abuse of children? Maybe you should be asking yourself how unnatural acts like sexual abstinence occurring within the framework of your own religion lead to the slippery slope of pedophilia.''

Monday, October 28, 2013

Idea for an interstellar space probe

How do you send a space probe to a nearby star? It's one thing to send a probe to the moon, or even to Mars or Jupiter, but when the distances we're dealing with are measured in the tens of trillions of kilometres, staggering engineering challenges arise.

As I see it, you need the following things:

- light weight (or rather mass, as things don't really 'weigh' anything in space). This is essential for reducing the momentum of the ship so that every unit increase in thrust will correspond to as high as possible an increase in acceleration as possible. Every single component of the space ship, no matter how seemingly trivial or mundane, must push materials technology to the absolute limits. Sophisticated alloys, composite materials, or more exotic carbon nanotubes would be used in place of conventional materials. Miniturisation of electonics must also be pursued to the limit. Some systems may also be designed to 'decay' after a while and be discarded.

- multi-staging. Most of the space ship will consist of propellant. Tanks or canisters containing no propellant are just dead masses that can be discarded, in turn reducing the ship's momentum and placing a light burden on the rest of the propellant.

- a super-powerful and efficient propulsion system. Obviously, chemical rockets are out of the question for any deep-space mission. They would certainly be used for lifting the space ship into Earth orbit, but would be discarded soon thereafter. Already, fusion propulsion - which would be thousands of times more energy efficient than any known chemical combustion system - would be needed to push the craft to appreciable fractions of the speed of light. Already, a team funded by NASA is working on a propulsion system that could get a manned mission probe to Mars in 30 days. Such systems represent the early stages of fusion propulsion technology. We can envisage that those in the far future will be even more impressive. It may eventually even become possible to use 'anti-matter' propulsion, a still more powerful source of energy.


- full use of gravitational free-loading: using large bodies in space, like the sun or the planets, to sling-shot you at high speeds, with little or no use of internal propellant. This technique has been standard practise for decades. For example, the Cassini probe that went to Saturn first flew by Venus (which is closer to the sun than Earth is) to get enough speed to go on to Mars in a few months. The aim is to get as much 'for free' as possible. Perhaps the space craft could be orbiting the moon at the beginning of its voyage, then fly by the sun or Jupiter for an extra push, and then get another push from Neptune. Of course, this will all need to be finely calculated, as even small inaccuracies can see the probe fly off into space in the wrong direction or to crash into the large body, but this should be relatively easy given the computing power available. The basic idea is to get as much of a kick out of the solar system as possible.

- enough propellant to burn throughout an appreciable portion of the journey. The ship shouldn't just be cruising for most of its journey. It should be pushed along every so often in order to accelerate, obviously to reach as high a velocity as possible. Apparently, it only requires 1G of constant acceleration for one year to reach the speed of light. This much acceleration is perhaps not feasible (though it might be, with a breakthrough in containing 'anti-matter', for example), but the probe, even travelling at a fraction of the speed of light, would be able to reach the nearest outside star system within the lifetime of a typical person.

- materials, shape and structure to protect the craft from radiation and debris. There are at least five areas of development that would be essential to protecting any deep-space probe: 1) the materials comprising the outer surface of the craft. These might be a type of tough foam or aero-gel that could absorb debris (and perhaps even excrete it); 2) the shape and size of the protective structure, which would need to be small to minimise cross-section (and therefore the odds of being hit by debris) and also shaped in a way that deflects debris as well as minimising force loads transferred to the main structure of the ship itself; 3) mechanical and electronic redundancies, so that if one sub-system is disabled by a hit, another one can take over; 4) some sort of evasive capability, in which the ship can detect debris and move out of the way; 5) some kind of electromagnetic bubble that pushes debris out of the way well before it encounters the ship.

- assembly in space rather than on Earth. The ship will need to be large enough to carry a good amount of propellant for its deep-space journey. Launching such a massive vehicle from Earth in one piece may not be practical, so the ship would need to be put together in orbit.

Now, most of this has already been proposed. But I propose something a little different. Here's my idea: use fuel elements that connect up with the main space craft in orbit after several years in space.

1) launch the components of an initial 'fuel ship' into Earth orbit. Here, astronauts will assemble the ship like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

2) accelerate the ship out of Earth orbit, using either fusion or simple chemical boosters (which would be quickly discarded).

3) make a fly-by of Venus, the sun and/or some other large body, to get maximum momentum out of the solar system.

4) Fire the fusion rocket again after the last gravitational sling-shot. Accelerate the craft to maximum speed using the first few reserves of propellant (each of which would be discarded after use). Then cruise for several years. This means that none of the propellant is being used to move the craft.

5) At some point during this journey, the space craft that will eventually reach the star has also done all the above steps and is on route to the fuel tanker ship. It has discarded most of its fuel tanks and is flying incrementally towards the tanker ship.

6) When the probe craft is sufficiently close, the fuel tanker ship will either dock with it or release a mist of hydrogen pellets contaminated with metal elements. These will be funneled into the probe craft using an electromagnetic field and then stored. More simply, the probe module could just detach itself from its remaining propellant and attach itself to the cruising fuel tanker.

7) Replenished, it will now have enough fuel to resume acceleration, and will of course continue to shed mass to go faster and faster, but also to get lighter and lighter for the next step:

8) Deceleration. The ship will rotate and fire its engines in the opposite direction for the last leg of the journey, namely the approach towards the star.