Saturday, 15 December 2012

Thank You

Dear Reader

It may have become apparent due to my inactivity, that I have become unable to run this website with the passion it deserves. I am so grateful to all of you who have contributed over the past few years. You have made my life more fulfilled in doing so.

I'll now be posting in a personal capacity at http://mjpcampbell.wordpress.com/. You'll find a fuller explanation there.

Thank you to you all.

Michael

Friday, 20 July 2012

Germany's Ban on Circumcision is Admirable


When a Cologne court correctly ruled last month that the circumcision of male children should be made illegal, its decision was condemned by religious organisations and the German chancellor Angela Merkel. None of these arguments succeed in trumping the two very simple facts of which the German court, in a culture of mainstream religious deference, bravely reminded us. The first is that circumcision constitutes an irreversible procedure tantamount to bodily harm given a lack of consent. The second, it is an attempt to determine the religious affiliation of a child before they are equipped to make such a decision. 

As a religious practice, circumcision is not carried out as a matter of health. Its proponents, practitioners and many victims claim that belonging to a community is of the upmost importance to them. Shared history and cultural practices define what it is to be a part of a strong group and circumcision is one such practice. 

If you think your foreskin, or lack thereof, is an essential part of belonging to a community of any kind, you are a fool. It is not relevant to any community worth being a part of what the precise state of your genitalia is or for how long your ancestors have been mutilating their offspring’s. It is certainly conceivable as the practice of some strange cult, but there are reasons why cults are generally condemned. Language, history, art, music and even benign rituals may contribute to the life of a true community. Do not place foreskins in the same category. The weight of historical tradition grants you no more right to violate a child in one peculiar way than it does in any other. 

But what of the right to religious freedom? This certainly ought to be a value defended with vigour by the religious and non-religious alike. The suppression of one’s freedom of conscience and self-regarding actions is a terrible crime too often committed in the history of out species. I am afraid that right does not apply here to whom the religious seem to think it does.

The Cologne court knew very well that banning circumcision is not an affront to the right of the parents to mutilate their child’s genitalia for cultural reasons. It has reminded them, to their disdain, that they have no such right. The right to religious freedom applies to the child who has precisely no choice over the future of their foreskin. The actions of parents in these cases are little else but an attempt to brand a child and instill beliefs which it does not yet have and may not wish to share in later life. If Jews and Muslims were truly concerned about the right to religious freedom, they would not moan hysterically when told their practices are barbaric. If circumcision is still, weirdly, seen as important, it would take place in adolescent or adult life when the subject is able to fully consent to the procedure. Why is this not the norm? The answer, it strikes me, is simple. No adult wants to have their penis painfully altered with sharp objects. At least a baby can’t complain.

This ruling has added sensitivity because of the black history of Judaism in Germany. While we must never forget the Holocaust, we cannot let the evil of the past justify or prolong present and future wrongdoing. Despite this, the ruling is sure to be overturned, as Angela Merkel has vowed. Even so, we can take heart from the fact that, at least for a little while, reason prevailed in the Rhineland. 



Monday, 9 July 2012

Higgs Exists!... Unfortunately.

A huge congratulations is in order to everyone at CERN for the dedication and commitment they have shown to a project which is only now producing results after years of intellectual and emotional investment. And what a result: the clearest indication yet that the Higgs field exists. We now have confirmation that what we thought was true is most likely correct: there is a field everywhere in the universe which gives objects mass, slowing them down or allowing them to pass through freely. A cosmic treacle, if you will. What a feeling it must be for Peter Higgs, one of the originators of this idea, to have his theoretical speculations vindicated after so many years. Comparisons have been drawn to landing a man on the moon. For many, this is nothing less than one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.

Then why am I slightly disappointed? I would rather scientists at CERN had not discovered the Higgs boson, the indicator of the this treacle, nor anything like it. I would rather have seen that the endeavours of all the men and women involved were in vain. Such a feeling doesn't stem from resentment or sadism but the desire for physics to undergo another radical overhaul.

Science is the attempt to prove other people wrong. We (or some great mind we claim as our own) do our best to devise theories to explain what's going on, then we test them to discover whether we were correct or not. In this case, Peter Higgs has been shown to be not wrong. The really interesting science starts, however, when something everyone thought must be the case is revealed as an illusion.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most people thought physics was almost completed. Isaac Newton's mechanics held steady, we understood thermodynamics, and we could begin a period of mastery over nature. But when Einstein explained just what gravity was, when sub-atomic particles began appearing which completely violated everything Newton said could happen, physics had to begin all over again.

Imagine, for a moment, if the Higgs boson had not been discovered. Of course, absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence, but let's suppose all our efforts suggested that such an object did not exist. What then? Momentary disappointment would quickly give way to lasting excitement. Everything we thought we knew about the basic building blocks of our world through the Standard Model would have to be rethought. The joy of intellectual endeavour generally, not just in science, comes when you undermine your assumptions and must build the tower of knowledge from the beginning on firmer foundations.

In a way, this is a disappointing result. And it could get worse. Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg said recently "I had a nightmare which is that Cern would discover the Higgs boson and then nothing else. Discovering the Higgs particle, gratifying as it is, does not provide a clue to how to go beyond the Standard Model." If it turns out that Higgs behaves exactly as we thought it would, then we are left with the same evidence and the same debates, the same Standard Model and the same arguments over its accuracy.

There is some hope for those like myself. The interesting discovery is not that Higgs exists, but what properties it has. That question is still an open one. Let's hope that it gives us something nobody expected. 




Sunday, 8 July 2012

Focus on Reasoning, Not on Belief

Eric Stockhausen, 20, offers some thoughts on the argument that atheism has led to terrible crimes of the past by attempting to show that it is how we reach our conclusions, not what conclusions we reach, which ought really to matter to the freethinker. 

I am sure many secular people have heard the Hitler, Stalin, and Mao argument against the atheist position. I really do hate judging atheists as a whole based on three people as if atheists are naturally murders. Even if we grant that average atheists have done more harm, that does not prove that atheist leadership will lead to genocide.

But there is a better argument against this evil atheist dictatorship argument, and that is to focus on reasoning rather than beliefs. Religions typically obsess about belief, not the path to those beliefs. For instance, regardless of how irrational the reason a Christian believes in Jesus's godhood, it is considered completely fine by Christian standards. If we look closely at the reasoning of an atheist that is not Mao or Stalin, we realize how important the view behind how reasoning should be done is. For example, take my view:

When I fight for my right to be free from religion, I also fight for the right for other people to have their own religious beliefs of their own choice.

If I take away the right to believe as you wish, I will be carrying out the same injustice that I blame the theocrats of enforcing through violence and fear.

If I accept that people ought to think for themselves, I must accept that people will adopt positions that I think are wrong, even absurd.

My hope is that free, open discussion will lead to self-regulation of ideas, so that the mainstream is not crazy and the values of other opinions won't become violent over disagreements on issues like religion.

I do not trust even an enforced atheistic regime because I do not believe in atheism as an absolute. My core philosophy is a methodology that force undermines. If you cannot use reason to reach your beliefs because force and fear determine what you believe, then even an atheistic conclusion is unjustified. The only justified conclusions are those thought through and with the evidence taken into consideration.

The methods of evaluation are known as science and some are still in debate to this day.

Even atheists who seek to undermine freedom of thought and neutrality in government with respect to conclusions (not methods) are my ideological opposition.

Atheists who think of humans as divisible into the categories of 'Us' and 'Them' undermine the ethical position that you should seek the good for everyone, even those who cause harm, unless the situation becomes too desperate.

When you can only see those who disagree with you as enemies, you can no longer yourself reason with them. You have stopped yourself.

One should be glad to have someone to give them sincere and thoughtful criticism, for this generally means that the person has your best interests in mind. In some cases it would be even wrong for someone not to mention that you're wrong. One should seek the best arguments against their position because beyond just rational benefit, it is better to know you have been wrong than to continue ignorant in your folly.

How can one blame someone who sincerely tries their best to know, who legitimately reaches a conclusion based on the information they had, but reaches the wrong conclusion? Just like I cannot blame a child for believing in Santa in a world that tells her that Santa is real, a theist ought not blame me for not believing in a deity when after all investigation I could not find one single piece of evidence beyond dubious testimonials.

With these views that reflect the kind of values in freethought that led to my atheism, how could anyone reasonably compare the society I seek to Stalin or Mao's?



Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Intellectual Abuse


I'm delighted to offer you a fantastic article from a new author, Justin Grey, arguing for a change in our understanding and perception of child abuse. Justin argues that intellectual abuse, that is, abuse relating to a child's capacity for critical thought, should be seen as a serious problem. One which society may have a duty to protect children from. If you like what you read, please take a look at Justin's website.

There are few topics more contentious and passion driven than how to raise a child. Different people offer different opinions, views, and methods, even among professionals. One area of child rearing that is becoming more defined as our understanding of the human mind and interaction grows is that of child abuse, or how not to raise your child. Child abuse is defined as the physical, sexual, emotional ill-treatment or neglect of a child, especially by those responsible for its welfare. In the United States, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies, again, four types of child abuse; physical, sexual, emotional, and neglect. Each type of abuse identified affects a child negatively on a different level of its being and experience. It should be understood that the use of "levels of being and experience" is merely a literary device I will use for illustrating different angles of approaching a child's well-being and does not imply or assume any metaphysical or unsubstantiated claim. In order to understand the idea being presented here, it is important to understand the definition of each of these forms of abuse and how they affect children. These definitions will be given along with a proposed  fifth mode of abuse that is also damaging to the child on another level of its being or experience currently unexplored that should be recognized and responded to called intellectual abuse.


Physical abuse is recognized as physical aggression directed towards a child by an adult that will more than likely result in serious injury or death to the child. Punching, kicking, slapping, shoving, burning, choking, stabbing, belting, pulling on sensitive areas, and even shaking (as seen in cases of shaken baby syndrome) are all examples of physical abuse.


Sexual abuse includes a wide range of actions between an adult and a child which are sexual in nature. Sexual abuse may involve bodily contact, as in cases of molestation or rape, but not always, as in using the child to produce child pornography or indecent exposure of genitals to a child by an adult. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, "no child is psychologically prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. Even a two or three year old, who cannot know the sexual activity is wrong, will develop problems resulting from the inability to cope with the overstimulation." 


Psychological (also recognized as mental or emotional) abuse damages the child's psyche, or sense of self. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime website, this form of abuse may consist of ridicule, degradation, destroying personal possessions, torture or destruction of a pet, excessive criticism, withholding of communications, etc. Psychological abuse can result in anxiety, chronic depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. 


Child neglect is a form of abuse in which the parent or guardian of a child does not provide adequately for a variety of needs. According to the article, "Understanding and working with neglect," child neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child's basic physical and/or psychological needs resulting in serious impairment of health and/or development.


Intellectual abuse is the active obstruction or destruction of the intellect of a child, which is to say it is the retardation of a child's ability to learn and reason; the capacity for knowledge and understanding. Examples of intellectual abuse include the stigmatization of a people, indoctrination into a worldview, and the miseducation of a child. It is in itself an umbrella term, as are the other forms of abuse, covering a broad scope of actions and attitudes, centered on one of the levels of a child's being and experience.


This is not to imply that intellectual abuse is equally as damaging as other forms of abuse. Breaking the limbs of children and fostering low self-esteem by forcing them to undergo humiliating acts both damages them and erodes their quality of life, hindering them on different levels of their being and experience.

 The question was raised to me during a discussion on this topic, "wouldn't intellectual abuse simply fall under some subset of psychological abuse since they are both dealing with children on the level of the brain?" This is where the difference between a child's psyche, sense of self, needs to be recognized as different than a child's intellect, ability to learn and reason. The difference between psychological abuse and intellectual abuse is that the former is concerned primarily with the attitude, feelings, and mental state of the child. Intellectual abuse, on the other hand, is concerned with the child's understanding, comprehension, and interpretation of the world and people around them as well as themselves. This understanding can have a major impact on the child's psyche, but is not directly linked to the psyche, just as being raped also has its psychological repercussions. 


Intellectual abuse, in discussion, has also to be compared to educational neglect, which I would still differentiate from. Educational neglect would be characterized by parents not providing an adequate education for their children. Intellectual abuse runs along a similar vein, but takes this inadequate education a step further by substituting good information with wrong information. It is possible to be both intellectually abusive and educationally neglectful with the same action just as it is possible to be both psychologically and sexually abusive in the same action.
To use a personal example, my father, a fundamentalist Christian minister, wanted to impart on me a belief in Young-Earth Creationism - the belief that the Earth and the Universe is nearly 6,000 years old and that all forms of life existed at the moment of creation - and was aware that many branches of science converged on the idea that the Earth was billions of years old (as indicated by geological, astronomical and cosmological scientists), that life on Earth had simple origins with a common ancestor (as indicated by evolutionary biologists and biochemists) and is believed to have originated 3.9 billion years ago.


One way he could have approached this topic is by telling me that, "Belief in evolution is evil, as is all understanding of it. I forbid you to learn anymore on the subject." This would be intellectual abuse. On the other hand, he could have told me, "I would prefer you share the beliefs I hold dear to me, but I want you to look at the evidence of both sides and judge for yourself what seems correct." This sort of approach, though still with the bias of my father's beliefs on the surface, shows that my father respects me and my judgment and fosters a mindset of critical thinking, an important lesson for any child.


This new idea of intellectual abuse may seem dubious if not examined closely and a person might ask, "shouldn't a parent be allowed to teach their child the values and beliefs they hold dear? Isn't that one of the joys of being a parent? What of passing on religion and faith? What of teaching a child about their history and culture?" In an essay called "What Shall We Tell The Children," psychologist Nicholas Humphrey answers a similar set of questions, nearly defining this idea of intellectual abuse that I am presenting:
“Children, I'll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas—no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given license to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children's knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith. 
In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.”
Because the understanding of intellectual abuse is not currently developed, there does not exist explicit data collected to see the number of children harmed by it. But to further use the creationist example, according to a Gallup poll released December 17, 2010, 40 percent of Americans still believe that humans were created by God within the last 10,000 years. According to a Huffington Post news article:
"Views on human origins vary based on church attendance. Of those who attend church on a weekly basis, 60 percent believe in creationism while a mere 2 percent subscribe to ‘secular evolution.’ These numbers are flipped among those who rarely or never attend religious services. In this group, only 24 percent believe in creationism while 39 percent believe in evolution without divine guidance. This represents the only subset of data reported where ‘secular evolution’ beats out creationism.”
The purpose of sharing such information is not to choose sides on a religious debate, but to expound upon the notion that people are susceptible to believing what the people they trust are exposing them to, regardless of the validity of their propositions. The Gallup poll also revealed that as the level of education in Americans went up, from a "high school or less" level education to a "postgraduate" education, the number of people who believed in young earth creationism dropped from 47 percent to only 22 percent with the percentage of Americans believing in "secular" evolution spiking from 9 to 25. It becomes difficult not to realize that exposure to more information leads to a different worldview than that of someone who is confined to one belief system compounded with a lesser education.


Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins hypothesized in his documentary "The Virus of Faith" that children are hard-wired into trusting our elders and parents for evolutionary reasons. He deduces that if children were to practice the scientific method, rather than exhibiting some faith in the word of their parents, the human species may not have survived. Jumping off a cliff can only be tested once. For evolutionary reasons, it becomes apparent why children are more susceptible to believing what they are told, but if this is the case, then what are we to do with such knowledge?


One thing is for certain, if the knowledge we impart on our children affects their perception of the world in any way and we expect them to make important decisions for themselves we want it to be the most informed decision they can possibly make. Our influence over our children is great and it is a responsibility that should not be abused.


Friday, 27 April 2012

Sam Harris on Free Will

An interesting talk here from Sam Harris on the problem of free will. Not much is original but the clarity of presentation is excellent. If you fancy writing about what you hear, e-mail submissions@youngfreethought.net.



Click here to view.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Ancestor's Trail

In the wake of Richard Dawkins' masterpiece The Ancestor's Tale(his best work and the most beautiful introduction to evolutionary theory I've come across), my attention has been drawn to an exciting event taking place this summer. In honour of the evolutionary history of all life on Earth, a walk tracing the route, with rendezvous points in the style of Dawkins' work, will take place between 25-26th August in Somerset. This looks like great fun, and a good opportunity to meet like-minded people. I might pop along myself. You'll find all the information you need here.

In the meantime, don't forget to buy a copy of The Ancestor's Tale. You won't regret it!

(US readers, can purchase a copy here)