Friday, 7 November 2014

Praeceptum Googlus

Say that you wanted to indulge in a little reactive wankery and create for yourself a little motto in Latin in response to someone’s quote from Thomas Aquinas.  Say that you went, as one often does, to Google and looked for a Latin to English translator.  Say that you were surprised to see that Google has its own little translator.

You’d be impressed, right?

However, there are some interesting bugs.  I know that Latin is pretty precise, so that when you have the right declensions and whatnot, you’ll know precisely what is being done by who to whom and why.  English, however, is a little less precise.  So I typed in my potential motto and checked out the result.  However, I know that errors can creep in so I reverse translated it to see what I got, then I did it again and again until I reached linguistic equilibrium (where back translation resulted in no change):

·                     English – A wise man knows that god does not exist
·                     Latin – Vir sapiens , scit non est deus
·                     English – A wise man , knows that there is no God
·                     Latin – Vir sapiens , scit quod non est Deus
·                     English – A wise man , knows that is not God
·                     Latin – Vir sapiens , scit quod non est Deus,
·                     English – A wise man , knows that I is not God,
·                     Latin – Vir sapiens , scit quod non est Deus,

True enough, I suppose.  A wise man knows that I am not god, even if he (the wise man) doesn’t know me.

To be honest, I really did want a slightly more wankery-rich motto (and one that was less sexist), so let’s look at what that turns out to be:

·                     English – When all truth is known and all that is known is truth, the wise shall know that there is no god
·                     Latin – Cum omne quod cognoscitur , cognoscitur et verum est verum, quia non est Deus sapiens
·                     English – When all that is known is known and the truth is the truth , because God is not a wise
·                     Latin – Cum omne quod verum est , et cognoscit , quia Deus non est sapiens
·                     English – Since everything which is true, and knows , because God is not wise
·                     Latin – Cum omne quod est verum, et quia Deus est sapiens
·                     English – When everything that is true , and as God is a wise man
·                     Latin – Cum, quod verum est, quod , cum Deus sit sapiens
·                     English – When the Lord, that the truth of it is, that , since God is the wise man
·                     Latin – Cum de Domino, quod verum est, quod , cum Deus sit sapiens
·                     English – In the case of the Lord, as it is true, that, since God is the wise man
·                     Latin – In casu , ut dictum est, quod , cum Deus sit sapiens
·                     English – In that case, as has been said , that, since God is the wise man
·                     Latin – Quo in casu, ut dictum est , quod , cum Deus sit sapiens
·                     English – In this case, as has been said , that, since God is the wise man
·                     Latin – In hoc casu, ut dictum est , quod , cum Deus sit sapiens
·                     English – In this case, as has been said , that, since God is the wise man
·                     Latin – In hoc casu, ut dictum est , quod , cum Deus sit sapiens

What the …?  We go from saying that there is no god to saying that god is a wise man?

Is this a problem with Latin or Google?  Let’s see.  I’ll do the same with Swedish (since I can do that manually anyway, so I can keep an eye on what it is doing):

·                     English – A wise man knows that god does not exist
·                     Swedish – En vis man vet att gud inte existerar
·                     English – A wise man knows that God does not exist


·                     English – When all truth is known and all that is known is truth, the wise shall know that there is no god
·                     Swedish – När all sanning är känd och allt som är känt är sanning , skall den vise vet att det finns ingen gud
·                     English – When all truth is known and all that is known is the truth, the wise man knows that there is no god
·                     Swedish – När all sanning är känd och allt som är känt är sanningen , vet den vise mannen att det inte finns någon gud
·                     English – When all truth is known and all that is known is the truth, the wise man knows that there is no god

Ok, one was pretty much perfect (the capitalisation of “god” doesn’t really matter) and some sexism crept in via the English in the other, but they are both essentially correct.  Why the dog’s breakfast with Latin?

Swedish and English are both from the same root languages (via the Angles and Saxons) so perhaps we could try a completely different one?  I happen to know a bit of Thai also, note that while Thai does borrow some Sanskrit and Pali words, via its Buddhist heritage, the majority of common words are of Austric origin.

·                     English – A wise man knows that god does not exist
·                     Thai – คนฉลาด รู้ว่า พระเจ้า ไม่ได้อยู่
·                     English – A wise man knows that God does not exist


·                     English – When all truth is known and all that is known is truth, the wise shall know that there is no god
·                     Thai – เมื่อ ความจริง ทั้งหมด เป็นที่รู้จักกัน และสิ่งที่ เป็นที่รู้จักกัน เป็น ความจริง คนที่ฉลาดจะ รู้ว่า ไม่มีพระเจ้าอื่นใด
·                     English – When the truth is known and what is known is the fact that intelligent people will realize that there is no God .
·                     Thai – เมื่อ ความจริง เป็นที่รู้จักกัน และสิ่งที่ เป็นที่รู้จักกัน เป็นความจริงที่ คนฉลาด จะรู้ว่า ไม่มีพระเจ้า
·                     English – When the truth is known and what is known . It is true that the wise man knows no God .
·                     Thai – เมื่อ ความจริง เป็นที่รู้จักกัน และสิ่งที่ เป็นที่รู้จักกัน มันเป็นความจริง ที่ คนฉลาดรู้ว่า ไม่มี พระเจ้า
·                     English – When the truth is known and what is known . It is true that the wise man knows no God

Now with the more wankery-rich motto Google clearly struggles due to the lack of punctuation in Thai, so a human might need to get in there to change a word or two to tie the concept of truth back to what is known (delete มัน and the space before มัน, and possibly replace the last ที่ with ก็), but it’s not the complete cock-up observed with Latin.

So why does this happen with Latin?  My suspicion, and it’s only a suspicion, is that Latin has been used for in the rough order of two thousand years to discuss god related stuff and there are biases in its use that prevent complex phrases which convey that god does not exist.  Note that this does not stop very simple phrases from expressing the concept, or is there:

·                     English – There is no god
·                     Latin – Non est deus
·                     English – There is
·                     Latin – est
·                     English – The
·                     Latin – est

What?  Ok, how about this:

·                     English – god does not exist
·                     Latin – deus non est,
·                     English – God does not exist ,
·                     Latin – Deus non est ,
·                     English – God is not ,
·                     Latin – Deus autem non est ,
·                     English – He is not God,
·                     Latin – Et non est Deus ,
·                     English – And there is no God ,
·                     Latin – Et non est ultra Deus ,
·                     English – And there is no God ,

For some reason it wants to add in the “et”.  Let’s look what happens when we take that out:

·                     Latin – Non est ultra Deus
·                     English – There is no God
·                     Latin – Non est Deus,
·                     English – There is no God ,
·                     Latin – Non est Deus ,
·                     English – There is no God ,

Take out the comma and remove the capitalisation of “deus” and we are soon back to a string that ends up flipping between “the” and “est”.

The lesson on this, apparently, is that if an athiest wants a motto that is full to the brim with wankery, he or she should stick with Swedish or Thai and avoid Latin altogether.

Or not rely on Google.



Wednesday, 5 November 2014

A short maths problem

I can explain all my problems with mathematics in a single word: I can't count.

Friday, 31 October 2014

My journey to atheism

Hi, I'm Sthitapragya, this is my story of how I became an atheist.

I recently learned that I am an apatheist. I did not even know that such a classification of atheists existed. An apatheist is someone for whom the existence or the non-existence of God are irrelevant.  So how did I reach this stage? By starting as a theist, of course.

I was born into a Hindu family. My father was not particularly religious in the sense that like other Hindus there were no rituals or ceremonies observed by my family. But my home was strewn with books on Hindu philosophy which my father was obsessed with. The thing about Hindu philosophy that most people can never grasp is that it is quite distinct from Hindu religion. So I was never really exposed to Hindu religion in my home but Hindu philosophy was everywhere. My father is an orator of sorts and he used to talk about philosophy with me since I was very young. And he was interesting. I remember a time when we sat for 13 hours straight discussing Hindu philosophy. Him talking and me listening and I never ever got bored.  But he never forced his ideas on me. He just explained things to me when I went to him with a question.

At a very early age, I got attracted to the Swaminarayan sect (if you have heard of it). So I started praying to Swaminarayan. My father, when he saw my interest, got me all the paraphernalia needed to worship the Lord ritualistically and even taught me how to do it. Pretty soon I grew out of it and stopped. Then I moved on to the Bhagwad Gita, which is the equivalent ( but not really) of the Bible for Hindus. I remember at the age of 16, telling my dad that there were a lot of inconsistencies in the Gita. He just said, “very good, so now read the Ishopanishad.” So I started reading the Ishopanishad. I was very confused and very interested in knowing God. It was an obsession for me. That was all I could think about all day. Then the uncertainty started creeping up on me. I realized that life was just a routine. You, get up, you do your ablutions, you eat, go to college, come back, eat and go to sleep to do it all over again. Then you get married, have kids, but the routine remains the same. So what is the point of life? Am I just supposed to do this every day and then die? It sounded so horrible that I started going into a depression, sure that life had no meaning or purpose. This went on for some time. I lost all interest in life, and even my friends started worrying about me.

Then one day, I had an “episode.” I was sitting with my friends having tea at a stall. So I was sitting on a rock and there was a small wild bush in front of me. On that bush was a very small white flower. I was sitting there, admiring that tiny flower, and suddenly, I KNEW. It came to me from everywhere. God exists. Complete and total conviction. It changed me instantly. I just know life had a meaning and a purpose. God existed. I felt relieved and exultant at the same time. The conviction was so total, it is indescribable. I was just suddenly sure about EVERYTHING. God existed and all was right with the world. There was a meaning and purpose to life. I just didn’t know it yet. Now, armed with this new found conviction that God existed, I moved on to learn what the meaning and purpose of life were and what I was supposed to do.

That is where the problems started. As long as I brought God into the equation, nothing made sense. Remove Him, everything made sense. But I already was convinced that God existed. So I decided that my definition of God was wrong. So I started re-defining God. I went from Brahman, to love, to the whole universe. I concluded and understood that God was impersonal and that He was just observing everything. This kind of made sense and there were not many contradictions. So I remained comfortable in that.

But a conversation with my brother changed everything for me. He told me, "you guys simply refuse to accept the POSSIBILITY that everything came out of nothing." First, obviously, I rejected that concept as ridiculous. Then I homed in on the key word. POSSIBILITY. It occurred to me, how could I be so arrogant as to be SURE about something which no one else was sure of? So I started questioning where the surety came from. Took me very long but I figured out that I NEEDED God. For some reason, maybe years of conditioning, needing protection,  whatever it maybe. So I asked myself, what if there is no God? What would it change? What would be different? Is it possible that we came out of nothing? So, I went out of my comfort zone and started reading scientific stuff which was very tough. Took me about a decade, but I concluded that the LIKELIHOOD of everything coming out of "Nothing" ( note the nothing in quotes) was more than the rapidly disappearing likelihood of God. I stopped believing in luck.  Or Magic. I realized that what science could not answer meant "the unexplained". It did NOT mean automatically, “God did it”. Lightening was God for ancient men. Turned out to be  so wrong. We just moved on to more complex definitions of God. Slowly, but surely, I ended up having no logical reason to accept the existence of God and even more importantly, the SIGNIFICANCE of God.Now it does not matter to me, either way. The existence OR non-existence of God makes absolutely no difference to me at all whatsoever. Now I am not a non-believer. I believe that God is a hypothesis which is unproven. I am simply rejecting an unproven hypothesis.

I am an atheist now. But I remain a Hindu because Hinduism encompasses all. I think people cannot grasp the concept that Hinduism is not predominantly a religion but a culture with religion as a part of it. So if Hinduism likes something from your religion they will simply adopt it. We have Hindus who pray to Muslim saints too. So yes, I am a Hindu who is an atheist.

Now I find that I am an apatheist which basically means that to me, God is irrelevant. Whether God exists or not, I am convinced it does not matter one whit.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

FAQ Me - Why do atheists call themselves "atheists"?

Why do atheists call themselves atheists instead of "not religious"?

Depending on what you mean by the term "atheist", you'll probably find that a lot of atheists aren't actually atheists.

Atheism is a term thrust on those who don't believe, and this is why some atheists say they are atheists in the same sense as they are not collectors of stamps. We are being defined by just one of very many things we don't do (that is, we don’t believe in a god). You might believe that an atheist positively and actively believes that there is no god and there actually are some atheists who think like this.  Usually they have argued themselves into a very high level of confidence that the existence of a god is impossible and taken the step to actively believe that there is no god. For most of us, however, this final step isn't necessary or would be inappropriate.

I, for one, have a very high level of confidence that there is no god. I don't actively believe that there is no god, in part because there are so many gods and so many versions of the supposedly "one true god" that I don't know precisely what I should actively disbelieve. It's easier to simply not believe. If that makes me a non-theist rather than an atheist, I am more than happy with that, which is why I frequently refer to myself as a non-theist. But I'll accept atheist, agnostic, agnostic atheist, weak atheist, soft atheist, apatheist, irreligious, non-religious, infidel and so on. If pushed, I'll accept strong atheist and/or hard atheist (if my high level of confidence that there is no god is translated to mean active belief that there is no god) and even anti-theist (since I do find some theists irritatingly condescending and there are only certain types of people from whom I will accept condescension). I'll accept materialist, physicalist, rationalist, monist and "scientistic" (as well as scientist (and also "physicistic" as well as physicist)). I'm not an apostate though, since I have never signed up to a religion in the first place, nor have I ever believed on an informal basis. Sometimes I am even described as a pagan, but that's not quite right, but if you loosely interpret "pagan" as meaning "not holding to of the main world religions", then it could work. Describing atheists as pagans also works for those people who misguidedly consider atheism to be a religion in and of itself, but that just makes them wrong on two counts.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

God-Botherers Incorporated, How May I Misdirect You?

Does it occur to anyone else that there is some division of labour going on with theists, almost like they are part of some vast non-profit corporation with at least three distinct divisions: the sales department, the legal department and the in-service support department? If, when a sales representative starts spurting proselytising type guff, a non-theist challenges the notion of what is being proselytised ... the guy from the sales department says "Oh, you are arguing against me? I'll have to refer you to legal."

So the non-theist obligingly trots off to the legal department and begins presenting a case, at which point the defending theist (technically known as an apologist) will ask "What particular sort of god are you talking about here?" The non-theist will say something along the lines of it being the theist's responsibility to define their god, to which the defending theist will say "Oh no, fleshing out the meaning of god for you is the sales department's responsibility, we just do defence. If you want to argue god with us, you have to provide the definition. Of course that definition will be wrong, and we'll laugh mockingly at your naive understanding, but we can't tell you the right definition because, as already stated, that is the sales department's responsibility."

So the somewhat irritated non-theist trots back to the sales department and challenges them to define their god. "Oh dear", they say, looking despairingly at the non-theist, "It sounds like you are arguing again ... you'll have to deal with legal."

Of course, the legal, sales and in-service support departments never talk to each other so the legal department can happily mock the non-theist for foolishly accepting any details accidentally disclosed by the sales or the in-service support departments as indicative of any tenets of the faith.

Just because people talk on and on about a specific type of god every week at church, this doesn't mean that this is the sort of god they actually believe in. How foolish would we have to be to think that?

In this scenario, I guess that theologians divide their time between marketing and product development.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

We are alone

In his intermittent attempts to be sceptical, Rene Descartes wrote “je pense, donc je suis” and, later, “ergo cogito sum” – or, in English, “I think, therefore I am”.  Much later, Thomas Nagel waxed lyrical on the difficulties associated with knowing what it is to be a bat.

A fusion of these two concepts may bring us to the conclusion that while we may be, precisely what we are being is not necessarily quite so clear.  Moreover, the ramification of Descartes declaration is not so much that we know that we exist because we can think, but that we cannot know that others exist, because we have no first-hand experience of their thinking – and, per Nagel, we cannot know what it is like to be another person thinking.

Therefore, I suggest, we are all of us totally, inescapably, irrevocably alone.  Inside our heads we experience no thoughts but our own.  The thoughts of others (if indeed they exist) are not, and will never be, accessible.  We most certainly can interact with other beings that appear (at least on the surface) to be similar to us and it seems reasonable to assume that these other beings have minds that are similar to our own, but we will never truly experience those minds.

If there is ever a foundational argument that firmly grounds “individualism”, then surely this is it.  Each of us, in our inescapable isolation, can only act as an individual.  We cannot act as a collective, even if our individual actions may contribute to a collective.  Any motivation to act in the best interests of others ultimately comes back to a response to our own personal considerations of the pros and cons associated with such action.  We may occasionally act in the interests of others and to the detriment of our own, but we never do so with our entire being screaming at us that we don’t want, at any level, to act in such a fashion.  (See Physical Survival and Legacy Survival.)

The argument for “individualism” has a home-team advantage as well, in that all individuals, acting and thinking as individuals, are going to have some level of native bias towards themselves, as individuals.  A universal declaration that the individual’s rights and strivings are to be held in higher regard than the rights and strivings of any collective is going to encounter far less resistance than any attempt to subsume the individual into some vague grouping.

Or does it?

Humans are social animals.  While certain individuals might survive into old age as hermits, the species relies on social groupings in which pair-bonding and child-raising take place.  Therefore, there is an adaptive tendency among humans to consider themselves as part of a social group, irrespective of whether or not they can experience, directly, the minds of others in that social group.  Each individual can, however, contribute to a mutual experience of community and feel some “ownership” of that community.

It could be argued that this need to interact with other humans is “hardwired” and there is some neurological and sociological support for this notion, for example the (human) face recognition ability that we all have and the suffering that follows from social isolation.

Little wonder, therefore, that when a society virtually turns its back on itself (as a community) and wholehearted, uncritically embraces extreme forms of “individualism”, there are going to be consequences.

There are other factors, however.  The populations of the West are, without exception, ageing populations (albeit Europe is ageing far more quickly than the US) and as age increases sociability decreases.  Think for a moment, if you are fortunate to have progressed past your 20s, how socially active you and your peers were in your late teens and early 20s.  Now compare that to the social activity of the average 40 or 50 year old.

Absent the continual interactions of communities based on interdependence, the friendships of our youth fade away and our fixation on “individualism” means that new friendships, should we make them, are less close, less intimate and, ultimately, less rewarding so we may become increasingly less motivated to pursue new friendships.

Perhaps the problem that Lokee has recently highlighted is that this trend has accelerated.  People are becoming less truly social earlier in life.  Social anxiety appears to be on the rise although this may be due to an increased willingness to talk about and address the problem.  Unfortunately, when people come to understand that making friends isn’t always going to be as simple as it was when we were children, some will give up on the endeavour entirely.

Another possible factor is the wholesale change in our entertainment habits over the past century or so.  Consider the options available in 1914, although we might ignore those associated with World War 1.  Certainly there were solitary pursuits such as reading and writing, and hobbies such as gardening or model building or various collection activities – for those who had the material wealth to need entertainment.  However, much of what was available as entertainment involved interacting with other people – even if that entailed sitting next to them at a play or concert or at the village green watching some sport or another.

Fast forward to shortly after World War 2 and movie theatres have become far more commonplace.  More importantly television was beginning to appear.  At that time, however, movies were still rare enough that when a new one came out, pretty much anyone who had the economic wherewithal to attend would see it.  Televisions were rare enough, and novel enough, that family and friends would cluster around a single set and would share the experience of viewing a show.  At this time, these entertainments were still community events and the broad sharing of the experience allowed people to feel connected in some sense.

Compare that to today.  The sheer number of movies being released (many directly to digital) means that only certain “blockbusters” and the occasional “movie as social phenomena” truly qualify as community events.  And that’s only if people choose to watch these movies, given that there are so many other options available: multiple television channels (cable and free-to-air), internet cat videos, philosophical flame session on reddit and/or slothing around in a haze induced by your synthetic drug of choice (or simple alcohol for the purists among us).  This bewildering array means that the chances that you and your neighbour share a substantially common experience of life become vanishingly thin.

This in turn means that our ability to simulate, with any fidelity, what is going on in the minds of those living around us is severely diminished and we become increasingly disconnected from each other.  So, although we might share some of our loneliness on little islands of shared culture with our nearest friends and families, we are increasingly alone.

What should we do about it?  If I understand Lokee correctly, reading between the lines a little, one option is to jettison a toxic devotion to “individualism” that acts as a demotivation with respect to any attempt to reconnect with others to create some form of community.   We must remember, of course, that if we embark on such an attempt we do so as individuals and that we are completely welcome to seek a meaningful connection with others with our own best interest firmly in mind … for it is not good to be alone, neither for others nor for us.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

By Lokee...

Whether it’s Batman standing atop a building, John Wayne casting a shadow in an empty desert, Ayn Rand’s character Howard Roark, or the array of reports we’re handed of people who “go-it-alone” and become millionaires, one story that is tightly-woven throughout western culture is that of the self-made man. A person who breaks free from the pack, to make it on his own, and apparently succeed without the need for, or help from, social connections.  The problem with this story is it’s a myth and one that on closer inspection has evolved from a reality in which people, whether they like it or not, have always needed other people, and as far as research can predict, will always need other people.

This myth has been embraced and held up as a symbol of western individualism since the time of the “Wild West”.  If this unrealistic myth is the template western society and thus its people use when planning how best to approach their life, in order to experience success and happiness, what are the consequences?

Every time I talk to my friends, switch on the television, read the newspaper or browse the Internet, I’m confronted with the following two underlying themes, depression and loneliness.  Depression is at the highest it’s ever been in western culture, affecting not only adults, as it typically used to, but youth as well. It accounts for more of the burden of disease than heart disease or cancer, with suicide ranking in the ten leading causes of death for the overall population, and the number one cause of death for people under 40.

There is also good evidence to suggest that the number of people experiencing social isolation or loneliness is increasing dramatically. Moreover in a number of studies people have reported a reduction in the number of people they could call close "confidantes", with the number being zero for as many as 25% of participants. What makes the increase in social isolation and depression even more troubling is that they are related, meaning where you find one, you often find the other.  Still more concerning is that those who experience depression require social support structures to be in place in order to aide their recovery.

I, along with many others, argue that the increases in both depression and social isolation are related to the effects of living in a western individualist society, in which myths of self-made men and going-it-alone are foolishly held up as a good idea, and even something to be idolised.

It seems fair to say we live in an individualist society. The extreme form of western individualism is defined by the motivation to become self-reliant, where the independent individual is valued and individual rights are trumpeted.  Going further, it could be argued that extreme individualism is about severing oneself from the obligations of and commitment to the group, in order to decide for yourself what is in your best interests, and to look out for those above everything else (think of Howard Roark).  There are two problems with this form of individualism, one of which is supported by countless studies, the other is a matter of muddled definitions, however both share similar consequences, which is that people are failing to get their needs met due to erroneous notions.

Firstly, those who argue for this extreme form of individualism have confused autonomy (self-government) with independence. They believe that in order to have a sense of control over their lives and to be free to be themself, they require a limited to non-existent social structure, the absence of which will support them to achieve, by not being present (the unconstrained self-made man).  This is however not the case, as the concept of autonomy shows. Autonomy is defined by the ability to make your own informed decisions, to act according to your own beliefs, to be responsible for your own life path, and therefore authentic.  None of these things require severing yourself from those around you, and as Self Determination Theory shows, autonomy and relatedness (social connections) actually go hand in hand. In fact, it’s through our social connections that we are better able to grow and develop who we are. For who else do we learn and gain support from, but others? 

It should really come as no surprise (research has consistently demonstrated that we are social animals after all) that there is over-whelming evidence to demonstrate that for people to have any chance of happiness they need to have a strong sense of relatedness. Not only, as cynics like to suggest, as a survival strategy (safety in numbers), although evolutionarily-speaking that appears to be how the need came to be hard-wired into us, but because people need a network of family and friends that they not only feel connected to, but that they can depend on, feel supported by, and confide in. As I stated above, social isolation is consistently positively related to depression, and even more than this social isolation is related to ill health, stress and the shortening of life.  In addition, those who have their relatedness needs met have better health, live longer and are more likely to experience well-being and happiness. Yet this form of relatedness, while a basic human need, is thwarted by the extreme form of western individualism, in particular when autonomy is confused with independence.

Before I go any further (in order to pre-empt some criticisms), I would like to clearly state that I recognise the many benefits that come from living in the West, and I am by no means advocating that we rid ourselves of individualism or capitalism altogether. I am suggesting that it would appear that we’ve gone too far in one particular direction (the myth of the self-made man), which has led to the problems I describe. This is also why I’m defining the kind of individualism and capitalism I’m critiquing, as extreme, the kind of individualism that denies that we are in fact dependent on, and influenced by, others.   

In addition, within Psychology there is a branch dedicated to studying human well-being and happiness, and while there is much disagreement and debate about what definitively contributes to a person feeling happiness, there appears to be consensus with respect to Self Determination Theory.  Self Determination Theory argues that people require the following needs to be met, in order to experience a level of happiness; those are autonomy (self-government or a sense of control over your life), competence (a feeling of skill or ability in a choice of activities) and relatedness (good connections with family and friends).  In the extreme form of individualism highlighted above, we can already see that two of those needs aren’t going to be easily met; autonomy because we’re made to reach for independence instead and relatedness because we’re made to think we need to and are better off going-it-alone.

The myth of the self-made man and thus the extreme individualist element of western society is also the setting for not only our materialism, but in turn our pursuit of extrinsic goals. Materialism, otherwise known as consumerism places material wealth, and the accumulation of assets, as the primary goal of our daily lives.  Within the context of Psychology, materialism is demonstrated when people value, and are motivated towards attaining goals aligned with, the accumulation of possessions, attractiveness and popularity, or put more simply, money, fame and image.  These are described as extrinsic goals or are seen as forms of extrinsic motivation, because people are engaging in activities for the environmental incentives, such as money, praise, attention, approval and public recognition. In other words, “Do this and you will get that” (Reeve, 2009, p. 113).  This is in contrast to intrinsic motivation or intrinsic goals where people engage in an activity for the sake of the activity or rather they engage in an activity to experience the inherent satisfaction it brings.  Studies have shown that people who are focused on extrinsic goals or who are extrinsically motivated experience less well-being and poorer health, with the addition that they very rarely ever feel satisfied.  In fact, further studies have shown a positive correlation between materialism, narcissism, egocentrism, a lack of empathy for others and depression, as well as anxiety. 

While intrinsic motivation and intrinsic goals are positively correlated to greater well-being, happiness and satisfaction. As Reeve (2009) states, “it (intrinsic motivation) is worth nurturing and promoting because it leads to so many important benefits to the person, including persistence, creativity, conceptual understanding, and subjective well-being” (p. 112). Adding more weight to the argument that autonomy, competence and relatedness are the driving force behind a person’s actions is that intrinsic motivation emerges from these psychological needs.
Extreme western individualism also teaches us that the onus of success or failure is on the individual (we’re all doing it alone after all, like the myth of the lone Cowboy), so if for whatever reason, you can't succeed to the level that is mythologized within the culture because of, for example, socioeconomic status, education, family, or environment, then the individual is to blame. There's little to no social support structure and the burden is placed on the individual’s shoulders alone. When we consider that statistically speaking this person is also more than likely suffering from depression and social isolation, we get a rather bleak picture of what it’s like to be an individual in the West.

Everything research has shown us about people and what will guide us towards a level of well-being and happiness is that we need others.  Yet much of what is promoted by the individualist West and the myth of the self-made man is that a person can and should do it alone.  This conflict has led to people struggling to find happiness, and often instead finding depression and social isolation.  If we want to get ourselves back on track we need to show this myth for what it is, a fictional story that is not reflective of reality.  We need to demonstrate that social support, family, friends and community are not only important, but integral to an individual’s life.  We need to stop suggesting that being autonomous requires that you be independent, or that to be an individual requires you to be free of a group.  For of all the myths I described above, Batman had Alfred, the traditional cowboy was actually not a lone wolf but generally an employee on a farm, the Wild West survived only as long as it did because communities were formed and the American military brought in, Rand’s Howard Roark is seen by many who study, teach, or are in business and politics, as an example of what not to do, while her philosophy within that particular text is widely and heavily criticised, and the self-made millionaire, well the reality varies, but they often have family, friends, co-workers, business connections and so on.

There are some truly enlightening ideas and thus quotes by some of the most respected thinkers throughout history on friendship, but I’m going to end on one that always brings a smile to my face…

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend. – Albert Camus. 

There's also an interesting show that describes the science and philosophy behind friendship here: - Series 15, Episode 13 "Falling in Friendship"

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Is the Universe Expanding at the Speed of Light?

The short answer to the question “Is the universe expanding at the speed of light?” is “Yes, it is!”  Or, rather, I think it does and I will, shortly, explain why.  But first have I have to give you the slightly more involved answer.

The slightly more involved answer to the question “Is the universe expanding at the speed of light?” is “No, of course it isn’t!” 

If the universe were uniformly expanding at the speed of light, we could not exist – everything would be zooming away from everything at the speed of light and that would make things difficult.  Clearly what we see in our vicinity is not receding at the speed of light – not in the least because we can see it!  We are actually moving towards our nearest neighbours.  The Canis Major Dwarf galaxy, is 25,000 light years from us (actually closer to us than the centre of our own galaxy) – and would be moving away from us at about 500 m/s – if it wasn’t being “eaten” by our galaxy, which has a notional speed of between 130 and 600 km/s in the direction of the Hydra constellation.  Andromeda, the nearest “proper” galaxy (being a spiral galaxy rather than a dwarf galaxy or a cloud), is 2,540,000 light years away and in the direction that we are moving.  If it weren’t for the fact that we are due to collide in about 3.75 billion years, Andromeda and the Milky Way would be moving apart at about 50,000 m/s – but this is not enough to overcome whatever is putting us on the collision course.

However, if we look at more distant galaxies, what we see is that the further away they are, the faster they are moving away from us.  The relationship between the distance and the speed of recession is given by the Hubble Constant.  Over the past four years there have been at least four measurements:

  • 2011 (Hubble) ~71.5 to ~76 km/s/Mpc
  • 2012 (Spitzer) ~72 to ~76.5 km/s/Mpc
  • 2012 (WMAP – after 9 years) 68.52-70.12 km/s/Mpc
  • 2013 (Planck – after four years) 67.03 to 68.57 km/s/Mpc

We can be reasonably confident, therefore, that the value of the Hubble Constant lies somewhere between 67.03 and 76.5 km/s/Mpc.  (These are the figures I used for working out how fast our neighbours “should” be moving away from us.)

The bottom line is that, if something is sufficiently far away from us, the speed of recession could be the speed of light – we can’t see things that were receding at the speed of light (relatively to us) at the time that light was emitted from it, because that light will never reach us, but we can see the light from distant galaxies that was emitted billions of years ago and it has been calculated that these galaxies are currently receding at greater than the speed of light (noting that there is a simultaneity problem associated with distant moving objects, the concept of “now” or “currently” gets a little vague when there is no causal chain to keep us on track).

This is not, however, what I mean when I say that I think that the universe is expanding at the speed of light, because we could in one sense be saying that the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light.  I don’t think that that is the case.

To explain as simply as possible, I have to work through a hypothetical and hope that the reader realises at the end that this hypothetical might not actually be that hypothetical after all.  First though, I do have to briefly explain about Planck units.

Planck units are natural units based on the properties of free space alone.  Their relationship to each other is such that, in terms of Planck units, the speed of light in a vacuum is 1, the gravitational constant is 1 and so on.  These units are, however, awkward to use on an everyday basis.  One unit of Planck time is equal to about 5.39106×10−44 seconds, while one unit of Planck length equals about 1.616199×10−35 metres.  Planck energy units, on the other hand, are relatively huge: 1.956x109J.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that the Planck length and the Planck time represent the smallest possible division of space and time.  Let’s further say, hypothetically, that the universe is expanding at precisely the speed of light … in other words, that for every unit of Planck time, the universe gets one unit of Planck length larger.  Putting this in a table:

Age of the Universe in Planck units
Breadth of the Universe in Planck Units

This isn’t terribly complicated, I’m just adding one unit to time and one unit to breadth.  However, we can look at this in a slightly more complicated a way.

For every unit of Planck time, we add 1/n units of Planck time for each unit of Planck length that exists.  I’ll put this in a table to explain:

# of Planck Time units
Increment/Planck Length
# of Planck Length units

This means, that for every unit of Planck length (1), we add one unit of Planck length (1), divided by the number of units of Planck time (Npl).  This means that the rate of expansion would be, at any given time:

Ho     = 1 / Npl (in units of Planck length, per unit of Planck time, per unit of Planck length)

Let’s say, however, that we wanted to know how many units of Planck length would be added for another unit of length.  How about if we used a megaparsec (Mpc)?  There are 1.91x1057 units of Planck length in a megaparsec.  This would result in:

Ho     = 1.91x1057 / Npl (in units of Planck length, per unit of Planck time, per megaparsec)

Let’s say that we wanted to know the rate of expansion at 8.08x1060 units of Planck time into the expansion of the universe:

Ho     = 1.91x1057 / 8.08x1060 (in units of Planck length, per unit of Planck time, per megaparsec)
       = 2.36x10-4 units of Planck length, per unit of Planck time, per megaparsec

This is interesting, but the units aren’t particularly accessible, so let’s convert the Planck units to kilometres and seconds:

Ho     = 2.36x10-4 * (metres per unit of Planck length) * (kilometres per metre) / (seconds per unit of Planck time)
       = 2.36x10-4 * 1.616199×10−35 * 0.001 / 5.39106×10−44
       = 70.75 km/s/Mpc

This might be a familiar number.  This is partly because 8.08x1060 is the current age of the universe (13.8 billion years).  In other words, if the universe is expanding at a rate of one unit of Planck length per unit of Planck time, we would expect to see a Hubble Constant of … pretty much exactly what we measure it to be.

Now, I am not saying that the universe is merely getting broader, because no matter what direction we look, we see the same rate of expansion for objects at the same distance.  I’m also not saying that some distant edge of the universe is moving away from us at a rate of one unit of Planck length for each unit of Planck time.  The added space appears to be evenly distributed throughout the universe, very much like the whole “fabric of space-time” were being stretched which is consistent with the concept that space-time is expanding as would the rubber of an inflating balloon.

If my “hypothetical” is right, then we should be able to determine the age of the universe from the Hubble constant and/or the Hubble constant from the age of the universe because they are the reciprocal of each other.  Of course, neither are particularly easy to tie down, so we might just find that the values are close but not identical.  If we find that the Hubble Constant and the reciprocal of the age of the universe diverge, then naturally my “hypothetical” won’t hold any water.  It would, however, be interesting to see if it is consistent with other observations.