Monthly Archives: December 2011

If you want your New Year’s resolutions, quit making excuses

It’s that crazy time of the year again when many people finally decide to assess their lives and make some gesture to next year. If you’re one of the serious ones and want to follow through on your resolutions, do what achievers do.

I am not a self-help author but I made it my mission to figure out what achievers do (that I wasn’t doing!) While my findings are hardly original, I hope anyone reading this (all 3 of you) will find something of value here.

The trouble with New Year’s resolutions

This is a funny time of year. Out of nowhere, people begin to imagine what they would like to achieve in the coming year. This is strange behaviour for many who rarely take the time to think about next week let alone a whole 365 days ahead.

Therein lies the problem – if you’re not used to thinking and planning exactly what you want then you’re likely to only do this for the first week or two of the new year. Another thing working against us is the tendency to place huge importance on the new year – forgetting that each day is just the same as the last.

In other words, once we have a setback (say eating far too much cake one week when trying to lose weight) it is easy for one to throw their hands in the air and say, “well, that ruins the goal”.

  • Key #1: When suffering a setback into an old habit or something that works against your goal – refocus and resolve to learn and get back on track.

No excuses

Just get on with it!
But change is hard! It can be, but it helps to be aware that familiarity is an evolutionary in-built mechanism to help us feel a sense order and certainty and to conserve energy.

  • Key #2: Just get started – overcoming inertia of starting something gets you moving. Each time you take the correct action the more familiar it becomes. One of the strongest drives in a human is familiarity.

Stop being the victim
I know a handful of people who repeatedly violate this one principle: If you want some thing to happen, sitting there waiting for it to happen is a sure way to fail.

While the principle applies when you want to attain a skill or acquire something, it also applies to relationships and people.

  • Key #3: When setting goals, put the action steps in your sphere of influence. If goals require others then you need to clarify what it is that you can do to increase the probability of making your goal a reality.

**Warning: Watch out for subtle excuses and non-commitment. Sometimes people unconsciously engineer their own failure by expecting failure. Secretly, they don’t want to commit because then it gives them an excuse that will protect their own ego from the pain of failure.**

There is no try
Watch your language. People who set resolutions often say “I will try to lose weight” or “I am trying to…” Trying presupposes failure and shows a lack of committment. When other people use “try” with you, realise that they are basically avoiding promising what they say will happen.

  • Key #4: Be specific. What is it you want? State it in positive terms, put a date on its completion. “Sometime this coming year” isn’t really going to stir you into action. “I will” is much more definite than “I might” or “I’ll try”.

Review regularly and exercise flexibility
How am I doing? What problems have arisen in the past week/month? Am I on track? What do I need to do in the next week to make my goal a reality? Am I guilty of being lazy?

  • Key #5: Ask honest questions and be open to honest answers. If you’re sucking right now and falling off the path, find out what you need to get back on. It may mean correcting course a bit.

Consistency creates excellence
Create a daily/weekly plan. What exactly am I going to do to make this a reality?

It is okay taking the right actions for a week or two, but real achievement takes time, patience and consistency.

  • Key #6: Break down your goal into bite size pieces. Make it relevant for today by planning concrete actions.

Keep it in perspective

  • Key #7: Remember why you’re doing it. Your reasons must be real and powerful enough to stir you into action without hesitation.

Useful link – Richard Wiseman’s psychological research

Science and supernaturalism – what we can and can’t know

A recent commenter in the New Zealand Herald made the claim that science assumes naturalism and therefore it is justifiable to assume supernaturalism also. This view, though riddled with fallacies, can teach us something about the nature of science and the limits of what we can know.

This post is a critical response to David Balchin (Presbytarian Reverend) of Waihi who claims that science isn’t justified in excluding God from scientific explanations. He does this by equating the efforts of legitimate scientists (evolutionists) with those done by creationists (non-evolutionists as he calls them).

… But science has now come to be redefined as the pursuit of knowledge within a naturalistic framework only. Thus God has been, by definition precluded from scientific pursuit, something that would have staggered the first scientists… Both naturalism and the supernaturalism that undergird each definition of science are non-falsifiable faith positions committed to an understanding of mankinds origin and purpose that is simply not empirically demonstrable.

Let’s look at the features of science that are relevant in showing the above claims about science are incorrect:

1. Falsification. Evolutionists (scientists) are trying to falsify a hypothesis. Non-evolutionists (creation scientists) are cherry picking data and conclusions to support a priori commitment to their belief in God.
2. Science is a method. No “faith” position is necessary to do science.
3. It is not the fault of science that supernaturalism is precluded, it is a flaw inherent in supernatural claims. If you can’t produce a testable outcome then we by nature can’t do anything with it. No test means there is no possibility of any new knowledge.
4. False equivalence – The methods employed in legitimate science are the opposite of what creation scientists do. Science progresses with reliable, verifiable knowledge. The fruits of intelligent design pseudoscience is disinformation.

No unjustified assumptions necessary

In practice, scientists don’t operate by the naturalism/supernaturalism distinction. They simply devise a test in an attempt to understand the phenomenon in question. How does it arise? How does it operate? There is no presumption a priori of naturalism.

“Science operates without any a priori ontological commitment as to what sorts of entities exist.” -Tom Clark, Why Science Can’t Get Us To God, Naturalism.org

Science is in a word, ‘agnostic’ to untestable entities.

But doesn’t science assume methodological naturalism?

Methodological naturalism allows science to get off the ground. When scientists devise tests they proceed on the basis that effects have causes that are in principle observable and quantifiable. If they didn’t the whole exercise would be pointless. By proceeding with experiments they implicitly assume there is a point to this exercise and there will be natural, testable phenomena.

“However, this assumption of naturalism need not extend beyond an assumption of methodology. This is what separates methodological naturalism from philosophical naturalism – the former is merely a tool and makes no truth claim.”Rational Wiki

Philosophical naturalism is a position an individual can take but, contrary to what some theists claim, it is not needed in science.

Creationists are not doing empirical tests

5. Science requires that a scientist demonstrate how the claims were arrived at. This makes the process open to others to investigate, reinforce or falsify (science is an open system).

The scientist
devises a hypothesis and sets out to test it. There is no commitment to any conclusion up front and they follow the evidence where it leads.

The creation scientist already believes certain unknowable (therefore unjustifiable) supernatural propositions and sees the world through that lens. Data is filtered through that prior assumption.

Creation scientists already bring a supernatural agenda to the table and therefore engage in confirmation bias – selecting evidence to support their claims while lying, denying and rejecting that which does not. This selective reasoning is exactly what enlightenment philosophers and scientists saw as barriers to unfettered pursuit of knowledge.

Of course, the creation scientists assume more than just the claim that God is a causal agent in the universe. Some believe the Genesis account is accurate history while other theistic scientists accept an older age of the Earth, others reject all those but still claim God can perform miracles at a whim.

**This poses a problem, if science was based on the presuppositions of the scientists involved, whose presuppositions do we accept? Catholic ones? Protestant ones? Muslim ones?**

Science would not be possible if presuppositions of untestable entities and unjustified assumptions were to infiltrate the process. Again, the fact that science can be done regardless of nationality, culture and beliefs is a strength of the method.

This way we converge on strong, reliable theories rather than divergent opinions of reality as is a feature of religion.

6. Supernatural claims are either unjustified presuppositions or premature conclusions.

At the end of the day, if there is an unjustified assumption X and the claimant cannot demonstrate why he or she thinks X is true, then it can’t be put forward as science. We use Occam’s razor to eliminate such unjustified assumptions.

After all the data is in we could still say, “Well God guided that process to happen”. This explains nothing and we are left with no choice but to ignore such pronouncements on scientific grounds. People are free to believe this if they wish but it cannot pass as scientifically valid.

This economy and parsimmony of science is one of its strengths.

Conclusion

While nothing can disprove an entity whose claimed existence is outside space and time (a contradiction as the very word existence implies physical existence) this is not a fault of science but more a fault with the proposition being made.

One of the strengths of science is that we can assign justifiable certainty to propositions – we can know something about the universe. This leads to theories that in turn allows us to make predictions about future observations. If validated, these predicted observations further strengthen the theories they stem from.

Science is a method that is simply agnostic – it says nothing about untestable entities or imagined realities. It simply deals with what is – a strength that separates science from other human endeavours.

Garth George and the art of polluting reasonable discussions about society and ethics

New Zealand Herald columnist Garth George is at his vitriolic worst again. His witch hunt this time – the Green party and their “dangerous” agenda [insert gut laugh here].

It is fair to say Garth George is on a personal crusade to change New Zealand society, which he sees as sick and depraved. An outspoken critic of abortion rights (or as George puts it “murdering babies”) he has clearly left the path of sanity in his latest rant against the Green party here in New Zealand.

One commenter to this article stated that the his entire piece could have been summarised by: “I don’t like the Greens because they are anti-fundamentalist Christian”.

I would say that is true and Garth George’s diatribe highlights why some religious perspectives on morality are deeply flawed, bigoted and therefore relegated to the scrapheap of bad ideas. Take it away George:

The Greens are dangerous. They are more than a polite group of tree-huggers, slug-savers and water samplers but you rarely, if ever, hear of the more sinister planks of their policy, which are frightening to say the least to those of us who care about what really matters.

“… Frightening to say the least to those of us who care about what really matters”. Aside from noticing the extreme condescension dolled out against opponents of his views, the question is, what exactly is it that “really matters”?

George wastes no time telling us exactly what issues are most important: abortion (sanctity of life); same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption (sanctity of marriage); “an education system which teaches that homosexuality is normal”; euthanasia (right to life of every person from conception to natural death).

Where have I heard that list before? Straight out of the religious fundamentalists handbook of intolerance and bigotry.

Not even moral

As is often the case with religious intrusion into moral debate, many of the arguments Garth George advances aren’t even moral in nature. Religious moral claims tend to come with the appeal to God, which means they are arbitrary and not necessarily based on any real effects in the world.

In reality, how do we evaluate what is moral? I submit that a civil and humane society in the 21st century bases its morality on innate, hard wired concern for the suffering and welfare of sentient beings.

A moral argument, therefore, has nothing to do with morality or is immoral if:

  • It is based on an appeal to authority. This is by definition a bad argument. Authorities that are the arbiters of morality can and do make immoral pronouncements. In this case morality is arbitrary and solely dependent on the wishes of the authority in question, be that God, the Bible or a national dictator.
  • It is based on “thought crime”. A distinction must be made between thought (no harm to others) and actions (actual harm to others). Religious morality, based on a totalitarian impulse to control, often condemns the mere thinking of something (e.g. sex, anger).
  • It condemns actions that reduce suffering or do no intrinsic harm to others. Such condemnations are immoral.
  • It condemns people for who they are and not what they do. For instance, homosexuals are persecuted for being who they are. This too is without moral foundation.

The humanistic tenet that George seems incensed by is the idea that human morality ought be centered around reducing harm and suffering and maximising wellbeing.

Homosexuality
Given this, it is clear that homosexuality is not a moral issue. Sure there are people who find it repulsive but repulsion is not a sound basis for a moral argument. I find eating cat repulsive but that is not a reason for me to denounce cat eating as immoral.

Homosexuality is “normal” in the sense that there is a clear biological and neurological basis for homosexual preferences and homosexual behaviour is witnessed throughout the animal kingdom.

Gay marriage
Gay marriage is also not immoral and does not affect the “sanctity” of marriage. Again, religion poisons the argument by saying that marriage has been somehow ordained by God as the union of one women and one man. Have they not read their Bibles? The Bible contains countless examples of men with multiple wives.

From a sacred covenant to a purley a legal arrangement for tax and property purposes… The definition of a marriage has changed constantly over the ages. The modern definition of marriage that has been “sanctified” by Christians is merely the latest incarnation. Opposition to civil unions of same sex couples amounts to denying some people rights that the rest of us have purely because of who they are. Bigotry anyone?

Euthanasia
Euthanasia or physician assisted suicide is an issue that is often polluted by the Garth George and his ilk by making unjustified slippery slope arguments such as : “But if we allow voluntary euthanasia then that will lead to voluntary euthanasia and murder.” Cased closed they say. But not only is the preceeding assertion false it also denies the fact that there are certain situations where euthanasia would reduce months and possibly years of needless suffering.

Allowing horrendous suffering to continue despite no hope of improvement could be argued as positively immoral.

Polluting a legitimate ethical debate about abortion

There is an ethical debate that can be had around the issue of abortion. However, denouncing abortion as “murdering babies” is poisoning the well. No rational discussion be had thereafter, even though there are legitimate reasons for an abortion (the birth will likely result in the death of the mother, the baby or both for example).

The argument goes that even an early term foetus is a potential human being. But so is an unfertilised egg and a sperm cell. If we are concerned about potential human beings then it seems obvious we should mourn the loss of billions of sperm cells and millions of eggs.

Where personhood is granted is not a scientific question and is the subject of debate (although science can inform the debate).

I do agree, however, that abortion should be avoided where possible but it is not my place to dictate to a women what she can and can’t do with her body.

Further, Christians generally and the Catholic Church specifically increase the number of abortions by also condemning the use of contraceptives and actively discouraging sex education.

The control of sex is one area the church as had to regress from because a person’s sexual practices is none of their business. 

Overpopulation and concern for the environment

Interestingly, George is quoting a pro-life “mate” in making these comments instead of point blank making these himself. In any case, he clearly agrees with the claims of his buddy, including this doozy:

“We should recognise that the long-term objective of the Greens is to reduce the world’s population, creating a world in which nature is the dominant ‘right’ with humanity subservient to that ‘deity’.”

Here, George could well have been quoting someone from the 15th century. The concern for overpopulation and the ensuing environmental decay, pollution and pushing other species to extinction is hardly raising nature to the status of ‘deity’.

The notion that “God gave humans dominion of the Earth” is an extension of human self-importance and vanity and it has had dire consequences on our planet. Is it not morally reprehensible to act in ways that solely suits us at the expense of other forms of life?

Besides, if we accept his premise that concern for overpopulation is deifying nature we can at least say our deity actually exists.

Green supporters are guilty of labelling others as dangerous and evil (dogmatic opposition to genetic modification springs to mind) but I would hardly call their humanisitic agenda “dangerous” in the sense Garth George has. Abolishing oppression and prejudice is a sign of healthy progress in moral reasoning.