Archive August 2012

Drifting moral values Ken Perrott Aug 30

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Last night the New Zealand Parliament overwhelmingly voted to go ahead with the marriage Equality Bill. A common comment is that it’s time had come. It would have not been possible 10 years ago.

Is this just an example of moral relativism, laws and rules being decided by what is fashionable? By our current whims and fancies? The situation which is supposed to result from subjective morality.

Or does it illustrate progress? Are we getting better at deciding what is truly “right” or “wrong?” This implies that there are some sort of objective standards – an objective basis for human morality.

I argue for the second position – you can see that from my earlier posts Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers and Subjective morality – not what it seems?This is like Matt Dillahunty‘s argument - “If it was wrong then, it is wrong now.” If we decide today that marriage equality is morally right, then it was also right 10 years ago when we didn’t recognise that.

Slavery, racism, discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation may have been socially acceptable in the past. We may have believed them to be OK morally. But they were still morally wrong. Marriage inequality was socially acceptable 10 years ago, but it was still morally wrong.

Human morality based on evolved biological value

I say that because I think there is an objective basis to human morality. At least on some issues, we can say there is a “correct” moral decision – even if society doesn’t see it. That “correct” position does not depend on popular vote, fashion, or the whims and fancies of a leaders, society, a divine “lawmaker” or a god.

In Subjective morality – not what it seems?“  I briefly outlined an objective basis for human morality derived from evolved biological value. I won’t develop that further here, although I recognise some people find it controversial. But if there is an objective basis for human morality why do we see the differences we do between different societies and cultures? Why do we see this moral drift within our own society? Despite an objective basis in our evolved biology our moral decisions can differ over time and place. What drives these differences?

I also compared our moral system to a modern camera in the last post. Most people in most situations use their moral camera in the “auto mode”. It’s far more efficient to rely on feelings, emotions and our reaction to them than to consult our “holy books” or carry out a logical consideration for each moral situation we face. We would have gone extinct long ago if that was the way we worked.

Using the “manual” mode

However, we do sometimes use the manual mode – that’s what happened in Parliament last night. The manual mode is necessary when we rehearse moral arguments, consider new ethical situations, deliberate on ethical rules and laws. As the caption to the photo of Joshua Greene in the last post says our automatic ethical responses just “may not be effective in handling modern moral problems such as global warming.”

Mind you we are more a rationalising species than a rational one. An individual considering their response to a moral situation is not necessarily using good or unmotivated logic. They rarely are. In fact modern research suggests that inevitably our feelings and emotions are involved in our apparently reasoning, logical considerations. So the manual mode is far from perfect (and admit it, how often do you make mistakes when you use your camera’s manual mode).

We don’t always get it right.

Reasoned consideration of ethical situations works better when more than one person is involved. Rationalisations are more likely to be noticed. Diverse opinions can be represented. But there is still no guarantee that it results in the “correct” moral decisions determined by the objectively based nature of our values and the situation being considered. I think, though, like scientific knowledge it is something that improves with time and experience. Society can recognise the mistakes of the past, correct them and learn from them.

Another reason is that our human nature is complex. We may have an inbuilt tendency to empathy and the golden rule, but we also have inbuilt tendencies to violence, and to a tribal “them vs us” mindset.  We are a complex species, our interactions with other humans, and with members of other species is also complex. We are not always going to make the “correct” ethical decision – even when we think we have applied careful reasoning and involved multiple viewpoints. There is always the option of in future correcting our mistakes of the past.

Effectively the NZ parliaments was doing that last night. It was recognising that previous marriage legislation had problems and that the Civil Unions Act they passed 8 years ago had still not resolved all of them.

On the whole, I think our drifting moral values indicates progress and not moral relativism.

In my next post on this subject I will discus how deliberate and intentional use of our moral camera in the manual mode can also adjust the auto mode. And even if you never use the manual mode you might find that your auto mode tends to update itself.

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Subjective morality – not what it seems? Ken Perrott Aug 29


Religious apologists claim morality is objective and moral truths or laws need a divine lawmaker. But, in my last post, Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers, I suggested if a divine lawmaker imposed the laws of nature on reality that would make them subjective – arising out of the whims, desires and fancies of the lawmaker and not out of objectively existing matter/energy and its interconnections.

Similarly, the “objective mortality’ or “divine command ethics” of the religious apologist really describes a subjective morality. A morality based on the whims and fancies of the divine lawmaker and open to the charge of relativism. (This interpretation is consistent with differing moral codes of different religions. Their lack of consistency has all the hallmarks of arbitrary whims and fancies).

Religious “objective morality” is caught in a dilemma here – the Euthyphro Dilemma. Is what their god commands good because their god commands it (a subjective morality open to relativism)? Or is what their god commands good for some other reason (providing for some sort of objectivity, and the possibility that we humans may also discover that objective basis for our morality).

So, while religious apologists love to talk about “objective morality” this is a misnomer. Their morality is actually subjective – and usually relativist. On the other hand, some (but not all) non-religious commenters describe their morality as “subjective.” Are there also problems with the way they use that term?

First off, I think some people may use the term simply as a reaction to claims of “objective morality” by the religious. Mind you I think some non-religious also describe their morality as objective (eg. Sam Harris) because they do not wish to concede objectivity to the religious alone.

Subjective confusion

But I want to consider the discussion of subjective morality by Zach Weinersmith (see Pankration Ethics) and Sean Carroll (Morality and Basketball). Weiner thinks subjective moral “rules are conceived of and agreed upon by humans, but have no existence outside of humans. That is, if humans perished, the rules would go with them.” In contrast he quotes Matt Dillahunty, a US atheist who who defines objective ethics, “nicely by saying (paraphrased) “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” That is, the ethics are outside of humans. Slavery is wrong. Even if every human being thought it was right, it’d be wrong. When pretty much everyone thought it was acceptable practice, it was wrong.”

We can come back to the example of slavery and changes in human attitudes later. But meanwhile I really think Weiner’s use of “subjective” is confused. Dictionary meanings are usually clear that “subjective” refers to “existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought (opposed to objective ).” Sure, for humans to conceive ideas and formulate rules is subjective. But that normal humans usually have two legs, two arms, one mouth, two eyes, one heart etc., is are objective facts. If humans perished those objective facts would no longer be relevant, except as a description of an extinct species. But that does not make them subjective.

Weiner does seem to allow for at least a bit of objectivity in ethics. This may prevent his subjective morality being a bit more than just human whim and fancy. He says “we observe that when we kill each other, it generally makes us sad. So, in general, ethics systems favor not murdering.” Being sad, like with other emotions and feelings, requires more than just exercising the mind.

He ruins that a bit by going on to say: “If we lived in some sort of video game universe where killing didn’t make you sad (and in fact got you coins or points or something), I suspect we wouldn’t have the rule.” I find such thought experiments very naive. Humans don’t live in video games – no real creatures do.

However, by vaguely considering emotions as a factor in moral beliefs he has moved beyond the subjective mind, he has opened the door, a little,  to the influence of objective facts on the human mind via the human body and its interaction with its environment. Perhaps there is, at least to some extent, an objective basis for these apparent subjective decisions. Decisions which seem to arise simply from whim and fancy of the individual.

“Subjective” but not arbitrary

Sean Carroll also rejects “objective morality:”

“I don’t believe in objective morality; the universe just is, and there’s nothing “out there” that judges human behaviors to be good or bad. These categories of good and bad are things we human beings invent. And in that sense, in my version of the analogy, the rules of morality are exactly like the rules of basketball!”

“The point is this: the rules of basketball were not handed down by God, nor are they inherent in the structure of the universe. They were invented by James Naismith and others, and fine-tuned over time. We could invent different rules, and we wouldn’t be making a “mistake” in the sense we’re making a mistake if we think the universe was created 6,000 years ago. We’d just be choosing to play a different game.”

But he adds:

“The crucial part, however, is that the rules of basketball are not arbitrary, either. They are subjective in the sense that we can make them be whatever we want, but they are non-arbitrary in the sense that some rules “work better” than others. That’s pretty obvious when you hear basketball fans arguing about the proper distance for the three-point line, or the niceties of hand-checking or goaltending, or when a crossover dribble is ruled to be traveling. People don’t merely shrug their shoulders and say “eh, it doesn’t matter, the rules are whatever, as long as they are fairly enforced.” The rules do matter, even though the choice of what they are is ultimately in our hands.”

While the rules of baseball are human intentions, therefore apparently subjective, they are also influenced by some objective facts about reality – the playing field, the size and power of the individual players, etc. Again, my point. At least to some extent Carroll’s description is acknowledging some sort of objective basis for the rules of basketball and human ethics.

He puts it more clearly here:

“The rules of morality are ultimately human constructs. But they’re not arbitrary constructs: we invent them to serve certain purposes. People are not blank slates; they have desires, preferences, aspirations. We mostly want to be nice to each other, be happy, live fairly, and other aspects of folk morality. The rules of morality we invent are attempts to systematize and extend these simple goals into a rigorous framework that can cover as many circumstances as possible in an unambiguous way.”

Morality may not be “inherent in the structure of the universe” but it may be inherent in the nature of a social species like ours.

Objective basis for human morality

Both Weiner and Carroll  have agreed a role for human desires, feelings, emotions, etc., in human ethics. They are acknowledging that morality is more than about rules. Here they are supported by most scientists currently investigating human morality. They see a key role for emotions and feelings – to some extent rediscovering what Hume outlined 350 years ago. Many don’t even consider the question of moral rules or laws. They are interested in what actually motivates and drives humans on moral issues. And this turns out to be largely, and in most situations, unconscious emotional reactions and not intellectual consideration of each situation.

We can go further away from the subjective mind. Emotions and feelings are the body’s mechanism for motivating and initiating action or reaction. Feelings of pain, cold, warmth or hunger motivate us to move or otherwise react. And these are just feelings we are conscious of. Most of the work done in regulating the body, its homeostasis, occurs below the level of conscious awareness.

Emotions and feelings are probably the modern expression of more mechanical mechanisms used by simpler organisms. In the early stages of evolution simple cells may have reacted to heat and food gradients detected by simple sensors. This early ability to react to the environment is an expression of biological value. Organisms which evolved sensors and reaction mechanisms were the ones that survived to reproduce. They had a value system or mechanism to aid survival. An objectively based value system.

Evolution of species with neuronal structures, brains, and eventually consciousness and self-awareness, has enabled a clearer biological value system. Rather than simple mechanical reaction our body produces complex reactions to stimuli – often involving mental and physical feelings or emotions. Here we have an objective basis for human moral behaviour.

Moral questions are differentiated from many non-moral ones because they evoke strong moral reactions. Emotions and feelings. In fact the feelings of “right” and “wrong” are very strong feelings. Perhaps this is why some people see them as objective – they must be because they are so strong.

Morality in the “auto” mode

This objectively based values system and the emotional feelings and emotions it causes do not need conscious deliberation. Just as well as the system has evolved to enable rapid reaction to situations we face. Not only in reacting to danger – but in reacting to other members of our species. We are social by nature and this has meant evolution of systems to enable efficient and rapid reaction to social situations. We have the ability to communicate, assess other individuals, judge them, etc., all without conscious deliberation. Effectively this is like using your camera in the “auto” mode. You can go ahead and take photos without thinking – the camera does your thinking for you. And much quicker than you could do it.

Joshua Greene compared the human brain to a camera during a discussion titled “Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality.” The trouble, argued Greene, is that the ingrained automatic responses that guide some judgments may not be as effective in addressing modern complex moral problems, such as global warming.

Of course we can also use our camera in the “manual” mode – and we can do moral “arithmetic,” consider situations, deliberate over moral rules and laws etc. consciously. In a “manual mode”.

I will discuss the role of conscious moral deliberation in the next post. Together with Matt Dillahunty’s assertion “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” See Drifting Moral Values

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Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers Ken Perrott Aug 28

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Zach Weinersmith and Sean Carroll recently blogged about subjective and objective morality (see Pankration Ethics and Morality and Basketball). Their ideas are interesting but I found their comparison of physical laws and moral laws with the rules of basketball and pankration confusing – both games are rather foreign to me. So I am taking the opportunity to clarify my own ideas about physical laws and moral laws. And whether such laws are objective or subjective.

Today I’ll just present my understanding of laws of nature, and whether they need a “divine lawmaker” or arise automatically from reality itself. I’ll get on to “moral laws” later in the week.

Laws of nature and moral law

Weinersmith thinks that the religious apologist argument that moral laws require a god “makes at least a certain amount of sense” – “it only makes sense to posit objective laws if there is a lawgiver.” I’ll come back to that. However, he thinks “laws of nature” are different.  “I’m willing to believe that a law like “like charge repels like” could be a random member of any number of functional sets of simple physical laws, and therefore might not require a lawgiver.”

On the other hand, most religious apologists argue that the “laws of physics,” etc., need a lawmaker, their god, just as much as moral laws. After all, they argue, the fact that nature behaves in a rational, logical way is evidence of a god who has somehow injected that order into the natural world.

I think there is a conceptual problem arising from at least partly confusing a completely human-made law – a rule which society decides and enforces, with a physical law or law of nature – some relationship of matter and energy which humanity has recognised through observation. Sure, the “laws of nature” are also human constructs but they do describe observations. They attempt to describe objective reality. In no way do humans instruct nature how to behave. Nor does any other being have to lay down such instruction to natural bodies and phenomena – they arise from the very nature of those bodies and phenomena.

The laws of nature are descriptive – not prescriptive.  They arise autonomously out of the way nature is, not the way we, or a divine “lawmaker” want it to be. We call them “laws” or “theories” because we have enough confidence of their general applicability that we can use them – even in new situations and places. Sometimes during their use we find they are faulty or incomplete. They might not describe reality properly or completely in new situations. Then we change the law or theory – usually by amendment or improvement. Sometimes, but rarely, by abandonment and formulation of a new theory.

In contrast, philosophers of religion see their god as a lawgiver who prescribes physical laws. But modern science has made a lot of progress since abandoning that medieval idea. In fact, the scientific revolution and subsequent progress required ignoring such constraints which had no evidential support. Today we make no such assumption. Effectively we see the rational nature of reality arising simply from the objective existence of matter and it’s ability to interact. (Here I am using the word “matter” in its most abstract philosophical sense – not in a naive mechanical sense of substance). The interactions of matter/energy inevitably produces order of some sort or another. When we recognise elements of that order we often describe them in a scientific theory or physical “law.” These are human constructs reflecting the current level of knowledge, which is inevitably provisional. Open to improvement and refinement as we learn more.

Realism, non-realism and instrumentalism.

Most working scientist are  probably philosophical realists. They imagine or assume that there is an objective reality that we can comprehend imperfectly. So they see the theories and laws they formulate as imperfect reflections of that reality. All theories and laws are inevitably incomplete – although over time we can improve them.

But we don’t have to rely on a realist world-view. We can simply adopt and use theories and laws because they work. In effect we can be philosophical instrumentalists. While some philosophers seem to automatically classify instrumentalism as a form of non-realism I think this is too restrictive. Realists or not we all use the laws, theories and formulae because they work. Sometimes we have no picture of the underlying reality, or conflicting pictures (think quantum mechanics and its interpretations).

As a philosophical realist I still consider I am being an instrumentalist in using the formulae, theory and laws – because I recognise them as imperfect reflections of reality that still work in most situations. Think about it – we are probably all instrumentalists in much of what we do. Why does a student attend lectures and study hard? Because they wish to get a qualification and eventually a job. In the process they may develop an appreciation of how the world is according to their subject. But many students are probably not really concerned about that reality

Confusing objective and subjective

Talk of objective laws or objective truths relating to our scientific or moral knowledge can be very confusing. After all, can we describe our physical laws of nature as objective when they have actually been formulated by humans. Granted, they reflect objectively existing reality. But only imperfectly. That reality has been filtered through our perceptual and mental (and possibly social) mechanics to produce the law or theory.

Perhaps it might be more exact to describe our scientific laws of nature as “objectively based” (in recognition of their incompleteness, imperfection and provisional nature). The laws and theories don’t exist independently of our consciousness (and culture). It is the matter/energy and their interconnections which have objective existence. Of course the objective laws and theories we have formulated are based on, derived from, objective reality but do contain elements of subjectivity (influences of our culture, etc). Science works hard to reduce such elements of subjectivity from its theories and laws.

I think we need to understand what we really mean when we describe the scientific laws and theories of nature as objective.

On the other had – what about the situation favoured by philosophers of religion who insist on a “divine lawmaker” which imposes its (his, her) laws on nature. Laws which are prescriptive and not descriptive, as they are meant to be a dictation to  inert matter and energy on how they should behave. Surely description of such prescriptive laws as objective is completely wrong. Rather than arising out of objective reality they are imposed on reality by some sort of intelligence. From the perspective of that intelligence these laws must be subjective – derived from its own whims and fancies. From our perspective they should also be seen as subjective, although we have played no role in those whims and fancies.

Physical relativism or “miracles”

The “scientific laws” of the philosopher of relgion, who see them as products of a divine lawmaker, must be completely subjective. In fact, even though we are talking of scientific physical laws and not moral laws, let’s bring in the bogey man of relativism. Given that in their scenario the physical laws can be at the mercy, the whims and fancies, of their divine lawmaker they must see these scientific laws a relative as well as subjective. Aren’t they actually being relativist when they claim that their “miracles” are real? That they are caused by something “supernatural” – suspension of the laws of nature. Their god, in her wisdom, has demanded that these laws of nature are suspended or changed for a time. Isn’t that relativism?

While the subjective understanding of laws of nature enable such “miracles,” scientific understanding of laws of nature having an objective basis enables a non-relativist understanding. “Miracles” and “supernatural” phenomena which seem to defy the laws of nature simply show our imperfect understanding of reality. If the observations are valid they give an opportunity to improve our theories, to develop a better understanding of reality.

Mind you, these days most claims of “miracles” and “supernatural” phenomena seem to derive more from credibility, falsehoods and poor observation than from any problems with the laws of nature.

In my next post I will discuss the nature of moral laws – see Subjective morality – not what it seems?

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Neil Armstrong by Buz Aldrin Ken Perrott Aug 27

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Buzz Aldrin, accompanied Neil Armstrong in the historic Apollo 11 moon landing. He has put up this lovely photo of Neil Armstrong, and a statement commemorating his passing, on his website.

I am deeply saddened by the passing of my good friend, and space exploration companion, Neil Armstrong today. As Neil, Mike Collins and I trained together for our historic Apollo 11 Mission, we understood the many technical challenges we faced, as well as the importance and profound implications of this historic journey. We will now always be connected as the crew of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, yet for the many millions who witnessed that remarkable achievement for humankind, we were not alone.

Whenever I look at the moon I am reminded of that precious moment, over four decades ago, when Neil and I stood on the desolate, barren, yet beautiful, Sea of Tranquility, looking back at our brilliant blue planet Earth suspended in the darkness of space, I realized that even though we were farther away from earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone. Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us. I know I am joined by many millions of others from around the world in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew. My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a historic moment in human history.

I had truly hoped that on July 20th, 2019, Neil, Mike and I would be standing together to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing, as we also anticipated the continued expansion of humanity into space, that our small mission helped make possible. Regrettably, this is not to be. Neil will most certainly be there with us in spirit.

On behalf of the Aldrin family, we extend our deepest condolences to Carol and the entire Armstrong family. I will miss my friend Neil as I know our fellow citizens and people around world will miss this foremost aviation and space pioneer.

May he Rest in Peace, and may his vision for our human destiny in space be his legacy.


Thanks to:  Buzz Aldrin’s Official Statement on the Passing of Neil Armstrong.
See also: @TheRealBuzz

Nooooo! Ken Perrott Aug 26

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Loved this. Cute baby and raises some interesting questions

Thanks to Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc via (5) Wall Photos.


Making sense of religion, science, and morality Ken Perrott Aug 20

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Here’s an interesting discussion. And unlike many in this area – one that makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it’s because the participants are all non-theists so are not encumbered with ideological baggage.

Atheists On Religion, Science, And Morality (The Point)

The discussion is between Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, Theoretical Physicist Sean Carroll, and Edward Falzon (author of the parody Being Gay Is Disgusting). There are also brief video inputs from James Randi, PZ Myers, and AJ Johnson.

Thanks to Friendly Atheist: A Panel of Atheists Discuss Religion, Science, and Morality.

Kiwi science fiction with a message Ken Perrott Aug 19

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Book Review: The Aviator (The Burning World)  by Gareth Renowden

Price US$4.99 (Kindle); NZ$6.00 (Epub).*
File Size: 641 KB
Print Length: 341 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Publisher: Limestone Hills Ltd (August 14, 2012)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Language: English
Text-to-Speech: Enabled.

This science fiction novel is set in a post-catastrophe world – in the not too distant future. Hardly an unusual scenario but I found its approach to the question of post-catastrophe social organisation intriguing. How would society reorganise after social collapse brought on by a world-engulfing crisis? In this case one of the possible outcomes of climate change? The usual scenario  is some sort of tribalism, and usually a warring tribalism. But would it be that simple? After all, humanity would still have reservoirs of knowledge. Surely that would make  simple tribalism unlikely?

Gareth Renowden’s solution is simple. Consciously or not he has simply extrapolated the ideological or issue-advocacy obvious in today’s internet blogs and forums into the post-catastrophe society. Today’s digital “silos” become tomorrows tribal groups. And, yes, they are just a inward-looking, suspicious and hostile to others as today’s silo communities are. Except they have real weapons. These tribal groups, or ideological ghettos, give scope for some nice irony and humour in the book.

Renowden’s post-catastrophe societies include the inevitable fundamentalist religious communities. But also communities based on artificial intelligence, technophobia, libertarianism, cynical “green” politics and so on. And, yes, there is even a climate change denial community – actively denying the world-wide catastrophe had anything to do with human-caused climate change. In fact still warning about an imminent ice-age (naturally caused of course)!

So you can imagine the scope for irony and humour there. Especially as Gareth Renowden is an author the climate change denial community love to hate. And they don’t hold back on expressing that hate.

Author’s credentials

This is Renowden’s first venture into fiction. His earlier books include Video -The Inside Story (1982), The Olive Book (1999), The Truffle Book (2005) and
Hot Topic – Global Warming and the Future of New Zealand (2007). The last book was short-listed for the Royal Society of NZ’s inaugural science book prize. He also writes regularly about climate change issues for the influential Hot Topic blog.

I must at this stage declare a common interest in the defence of science against science deniers, and to being a fellow SciBlogger of Gareth’s. But I know a good read when I see one and believe Gareth has adjusted to a fictional style very well. (I can already see a number of jibes about this coming from the local climate change denial ghetto – if their denigration of truffle farmers is anything to go by).

An entertaining story

The story involves the hero (Lemmy) and his romantic partner (Kate) travelling the world in a high-technology blimp (hence The Aviator). Home for them is New Zealand – specifically D’Urville Island at the top end of the South Island. They encounter the ideological ghettos during their travels, mainly in the USA – or what remains of it. Many of these encounters end in conflict, and a few shoot-outs – but they form a working relationship to one rich high technology group. A group based on concepts of interaction between human and artificial intelligence and belief in the ‘singularity‘ –” a point where the exponential acceleration of technological progress, especially computing power, would bring a merging of human and machine intelligence.”

Room for some interesting concepts and adventures there. Jenny, the blimp’s autopilot -  herself an artificial intelligence which may even have some scope for emotions or something similar – contributes. There are some interesting interactions between Jenny and Kate when Kate receives artificial intelligence implants during treatment after an accident. This is enhanced by Jenny’s ability to interact with Kate’s thoughts and feelings – that puts a real damper on Kate’s love life!

So there is plenty of scope there for an entertaining story. With adventure, romance and humour. All this appealed to me as I prefer hard science fiction which is reality-based. With technology and machines not too unexpected or “magic.” Not set so impossibly far into the future that its hard to relate. I really don’t like the common fantasy genre of much of today’s science fiction.

So here comes my only complaint. Part of the story-line involves a certain amount of genetic engineering (hence the goat on the cover). Not too far-fetched as New Zealand has plenty of current research in these fields. Just that I found the effects on humans  by the product produced by the genetically engineered goats are bit “magic.” OK I guess if you enjoy a little fantasy, but not quite realistic science. I’ll leave that to readers and I am nit-picking as it didn’t really destroy the credibility of the story for me.

Catastrophic but not alarmist

As you might expect, Renowden has a serious message behind the adventure, humour and entertainment of his story. After all, he writes often on the issue of climate change and he starts the book with a quote from Ray Bradbury about writing Fahrenheit 451:

“I WASN’T TRYING to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”

He makes his message clear in a brief appendix:

“The Burning World is our planet, but not as we know it. It is one future, a place that might be born of the things we do today. As long as we carry on increasing the carbon content of the atmosphere by using it as a cheap sewer for the waste from the burning of coal and oil, and continue felling forests, then the earth will continue to warm, and some of the things that Lemmy experiences in his short life will come to pass. Not as I have written them, perhaps, but in some form and to some extent these impacts — the rising seas, the extreme weather, the melting ice, the changes in rainfall patterns — will shape the lives of everyone on this planet over the next hundred years and for millennia beyond.

The Burning World is not a prediction. It is intended as a warning, an illustration of the potential consequences of our actions. In its imagining I have tried to stay within the bounds of realistic possibility — stretched a little in the interests of the story in one or two places (or throughout, some might argue) — but most of the main climate change impacts to be found in The Aviator are grounded in things we can see today, brought forward in time. When Lemmy and Thunderbird fly over the Greenland ice sheet and note that even the highest levels are melting, at the time of writing (in 2011) I thought that might be a reasonable projection of the state of the ice twenty to thirty years hence. And then, shortly before publication I learned that it’s already happening. We can only hope the same is not true for some of the other impacts I have dreamed up.”

An important clarification – but it won’t stop Renowden’s harshest critics from calling him “alarmist.” They will do so even without reading the book.

The fact that home base for the blimp was New Zealand, and realistically so,  appealed to me. I have watched New Zealand develop a respectable batch of fictional writers during my lifetime, but we are still short of science fiction writers. Hopefully this book will contribute to a growth in this genre too. The cover describes it as “The Burning World Book One” – so that looks promising.

I highly recommend this first book to science fiction fans and am certainly looking forward to the next book in the series.

*Paperback format available mid-September.

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Science – the greatest story ever told Ken Perrott Aug 16

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Book Review: A Crisis of Faith – Atheism, Emerging Technologies and the Future of Humanity by Phil Torres

Kindle Edition$5.99
Paperback: $19.95
File Size: 498 KB
Print Length: 174 pages
Publisher: Dangerous Little Books (July 18, 2012)

The last chapter in this book is titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told?” And the rest of the book lays the groundwork for that story. It outlines the scientific approach, based on evidence and reason. Validated against reality.

As a child Phil Torres “was often told that the Bible is not merely a good or even a great story, but that it’s the greatest story ever told.”  As an adult his education lead him to conclude that science’s story “is simply better than the Bible’s.”

So that last chapter is “science’s story of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going.” The question mark is there because it is the author’s suggestion and his version of the story. Different writers may present different details, but the story itself certainly is great.

From evangelical to atheist

Phil Torres was raised in an evangelical household. He says:

“I was born and raised in an evangelical household. For years as a child, I slept crowded to one side of the bed to leave room for Jesus to sleep next to me. You could say that I took the Bible seriously; I was a true born-again believer. I think my departure from religion was inevitable (although not always desired). The more questions I asked about the intellectual foundations of Christianity, the less trustworthy its doctrines and dogmas seemed; the more I queried religious authorities about how they knew what they claimed to know, the more foolish they looked.”

In this book Torres carefully explains why he abandoned those “beliefs – both terrifying and wonderful – that I once held so dear to my heart and soul.” He does so very clearly. His language is economical and mostly accessible. While there are some inevitable technical words used in his discussion of philosophy they are kept to a minimum. The chapters are short – usually expressed as a question. For example: “What is Evidence?,” What is Evolution?,”What is Science?” and “Is Religion Good for People and Society?” And at about 180 pages plus notes, the book itself is relatively short – especially for this subject.

All this makes the book ideal for the younger person, or the person relatively new to the subject. For someone who wants a clear and accurate overview of the arguments, and not a detailed discussion of intricate problems in theology or philosophy.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, there are a couple of chapters on robots and cognitive enhancement which probably represent particular interests of the author, rather than presenting any essential arguments for science and atheism. Inevitably they are also more speculative but make up only a small part of the book. I guess we can allow an author such foibles – particularly as he has done such a good job of presenting the essential material.

Singles – a new genre?

One effect of the increasing presence of digital books in the market has been the arrival of a new genre – the short but complete book providing an introductory overview to its subject. Amazon markets these as “Singles” and some publishers are encouraging authors, especially new authors, into this format.  I am sure that the short, clear overview presentation of “singles,” and their generally lower price, appeals to many readers. And I think it is probably one of the most attractive ways of introducing readers to unfamiliar subjects.

I see A Crisis of Faith belonging to this “singles” genre. Its introductory nature, the clear and economical writing and its relative shortness will appeal to the younger reader and to those looking for a clearly written overview and not a detailed exposition of abstract debates.

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A sundial on Curiosity? Ken Perrott Aug 15

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When I saw the first reports of this on Twitter I thought it was a joke. A sundial on Curiosity? Just in case the computer packs up they can still tell the time? I thought some wag was pulling our collective legs with a photo of one of the rover’s antennae.

But, turns out this is something like a sundial. Its a Marsdial – actually a calibration target enabling photographs to be corrected for colour. BIll Nye, from the Planetary Society, describes its role in Curiosity’s Marsdial is on Mars!

“As I’m sure you’re aware, geologists love rocks, and they especially love the rocks on Mars. The first thing they all want to know about a rock is what’s it made of. For that, it’s good to just take a look at the color of the rock surface. When everything is being done on the alien landscape of another world, it’s easy enough to electronically get the color wrong, or not quite right. To that end, artists, photographers, and a few scientists have noticed that by looking at the color of a shadow on a neutral white or gray background, you can infer the color contributed to the scene by the sky.

On Earth, shadows take on a sky blue tinge (what I like to call “cerulescence”). On Mars, it’s a salmon color (what I like to call “arangidescence”). And so, the MarsDials bear a small metal post that casts a shadow onto some white and gray rings of known value or grayness.”

The NASA animation above is made up from four Mastcam images of the calibration target — the Marsdial. They were taken on Curiosity’s sol 3 (August 9, 2012) over a period of about 8 minutes. In that time, the shadow moved slightly, marking time on Mars with a sundial. (You may need to click on the photo to see the animation).

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Scientific shift work Ken Perrott Aug 14

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Some of the people on teams managing the rovers on Mars call themselves “Rover drivers” or “Mars drivers.” Of course, things are not that simple. It is not possible to drive a vehicle on Mars in real-time from Earth. Instead, computer code must be uploaded to enable the vehicle to carry out planned manoeuvres, analyses, etc., autonomously.  And the computer code can only be written after the results of the previous commands are known.

In practice, this involves large teams of engineers, software experts and scientists. Each team has their own work – and the teams need to interact to plan the rover’s work, iron out priorities, and deal with problems. This work has to occur at strange times, and with deadlines, to fit in with the activity and day/night programme on Mars. Energy limitations means that the rover usually does not operate during the Martial day.

So all this work, the meetings of each team and their joint meetings, and decisions about planned activity must take place before the rover “wakes up.” And because the results from the previous day’s activities feed into this detailed decision cannot be made and code written until after that data has been downloaded and analysed.

The graphic above was shown in one of the recent Mars Science Laboratory – Curiosity – media briefings. It indicates the time line for the Laboratory to be active (“awake”), the downloading of data via the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance orbiters, assessment of data, planning of future activity (particularly that for the next day), interaction of engineering, scientific and software teams, integration of plans, validation and approval and then the sending of the new commands to Curiosity as it “wakes up” for the new day.

I note they have even left a brief time gap “margin” to handle unforeseen problems.

It must be fascinating to work in large teams like this on scientific projects. And I am sure there are also political and emotional problems that need management as well as the engineering, scientific and software problems. Apparently with groups managing Mars rovers the shift-work, and the drift in shift times because of mismatch in the length of the Earth day and the Mars sol, causes “jet lag.” So the emotional and human issues resulting from this also need management.

Andrew Kessler gives an idea of the procedures involved in managing Mars rovers and landers in his book Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission. This is based on his own experiences as a journalist embedded in the teams managing the recent Phoenix lander. It’s a bit of an eye-opener – at least for someone who hasn’t worked in such large scientific teams before.

See Working on Mars for my review of that book.

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