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Optimism Doesn’t Work. Voltaire’s Candide.

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 26, 2012

Christmas is a low stress affair in my family. We don’t give gifts to adults any more, so the frantic “What-on-earth-do-I-get-X?” is removed from the holiday. One of the few gifts I did receive is a new translation of Voltaire’s satire Candide, subtitled “Optimism” (published in 1761). I’ve never read it, and it turns out to be very enjoyable and full of surprises.

For example, Candide is a young man. I’d always assumed the hero(ine) was a woman. The name equates to “white”, and by implication, “innocent”. Candide is indeed somewhat of an innocent, being convinced that his tutor Proffessor Panglosse is the greatest philosopher in the world, and that Panglosse has proven beyond doubt that this world is “the best of all possible worlds”. I first came across the idea of the best of all possible worlds when I was studying the problem of evil, and it appears this kind of thing was being promoted in Voltaire’s day – perhaps by Leibniz? More on this below.

Another surprise for me, is that Voltaire’s real name was Francois-Marie Arouet. He published under 178 pseudonyms during his life, but Voltaire was his preferred name, an anagram of “AROVET LI,” the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of “le jeune” (“the younger”). The adoption of the name “Voltaire” following his incarceration at the Bastille is seen by many to mark Voltaire’s formal separation from his family name and his past. The name also conveys connotations of speed and daring, and you can refer to Wikipedia for the rest.


Also surprising is how enjoyable Candide is, if an adventure that features rape, hideous floggings, disease and numerous disasters can be enjoyed. In parts it reminded me very much of Monty Python.

From the translators introduction:”The word optimism, first used in print in 1737, represents a philosophical position, a claim that in spite of errors and appearances God’s creation is as good as it could be.”

God, being perfect, can only create perfect things. Ergo, this world must be perfect. In Candide, the entire book is a series of misfortunes which poke fun at this idea. I once read something by evangelical philosopher Norman Geisler, who said this world is clearly not the best of all possible worlds. However, he claims, this world is the best WAY to the best world. In other words, he believes that the sufferings and misfortunes of this world are permissible (or perhaps necessary) in order to achieve the best world. Putting it another way, the horrors of this lifetime do have either some purpose (eg, *some* suffering may improve one’s character) or some necessity (eg God cannot make a consistent physical world without allowing the possibility of drowning or falling). Geisler lists a number of explanations for evil and emphasises that each one only covers *some* aspect of suffering; there is no single catch-all explanation that explains everything. However, Geisler believes that taken together, these explanations make suffering and evil understandable.

In similar vein, I picked up Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God again. For some reason, my mother now owns it. It is a good, popular exposition of the reasonableness of belief in God, specifically the Christian one. But I found his chapter on the problem of evil somewhat dissatisfying. I suppose in this world we should never become comfortable with disaster, suffering and failure and a book that makes us feel comfortable would probably be missing something. Keller is absolutely right, in my view, that the problem of evil is not proof that a good and loving God cannot exist. Where the argument from evil comes undone is that we are finite beings without full knowledge: We cannot KNOW all of God’s reasons for why things happen, therefore evil does not prove that God cannot be. Emphasis on the word “prove” there. However, while Keller is not twee, I think more acknowledgement of how shit this world can be, and sympathy for those affected by it, would improve his book. His chapter defending the church’s mistakes suffers a similar lack – he almost breezes over some of the horrors and banalities of Christianity. I think his defense is reasonable, but a little more humility would make me love him. Ah well, these books are never perfect and the appropriate bits should be added to one’s personal worldview rather than treating the whole as some kind of Bible.

Which leads me to my sister’s cancer.

I think I blogged about it over a year ago when we first discovered it. Briefly, it was pretty serious liver/colon cancer, at the point where she might not have long to live. She went through chemo and it looked successful – Hallelujah. Then the tumors came back and she had more surgery. This may have been successful (test results in the new year will tell us something), but has resulted in very painful adhesions. So she is gaunt, in regular pain, and may only have a year or two to live.

I’ve been thinking about optimism and pessimism. Since the days of Voltaire, optimism has altered in meaning and entered the common lexicon. I don’t think either pessimism or optimism can be proved. One can look at the world and see violence, disease, crime and war. This is Voltaire’s story of Candide. Or one can see beauty, charity, nurture and success. Both perspectives are true, and I think the philosophical position that can sum them up will be extremely nuanced. That’s probably why the Christian story (if it’s true) comes to us as a story, rather than a philosophy. Stories tend to be better for nuance than philosophy.

What can help is a perspective. Some of us like to claim we are “realistic”. Is this possible? Whether true or not, it’s more fun to be optimistic, but at times pessimism seems hard to deny.


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Carbon Based Lifeforms | Photosynthesis

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Posted in agnostic, hardship, personal, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Why Does Existence Matter? Simondon and Ontology

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 16, 2012

I’ve been reading about Gilbert Simondon, a French thinker (1924 – 1989) who has been very influential on the Continent, but is only just becoming known in the English-speaking world. I’m wondering if I can use his ideas to help me in my studies.

Using sociology I try to understand what a human being is, and how they are constructed by social forces (or how they construct themselves). Discourses of gender, for example, help construct us as male or female. Simondon spends a lot of time discussing what an individual is1.

Rather than understanding an individual as a static unchanging being, Simondon suggests individuals are a process which is part of a system. “Individual development is a constantly changing and fluid, ‘non-linear’ process” (Harvey et al, 2008: 4). He also thinks we are fundamentally relational beings. Simondon thinks we are permanently in relationship, and that our being can only be defined by our relationships.

The term “individuation” describes the process of how individuals are created from “pre-individuals”. Debaise says Simondon refers to a “preindividual nature”, by which it seems he really means “being” rather than the natural world of plants, rocks and seas (Debaise, 2012: 3). So we are individuated (‘created’) as a process in a system of being. I originally thought that for Simondon individuals have multiple selves, or parts, but this may be a misunderstanding on my part.


Simondon is talking about ontology, which is the study of being, or existence. I think it was Sartre who said, “The biggest question is why anything exists at all.” He’s right; if you start to ponder why the world is ‘there’, it can get very tricky. Ontology is not just about the fact that things exist, it’s also about the nature of their existence. Ontology asks, “At the deepest, most core level, what kind of a thing is a person?”. If we think a person has a soul, we could ask, “What kind of a thing is a soul, and how does it interact with the world?” If you’re not comfortable with the word, just replace ontology with “existence” whenever you see it.

And here is my question: Why does it matter what the existence of humans actually is? How does being able to describe the “being” of a person make a difference to me as a sociologist? To sociologists or scientists, people who are trying to understand the world, does it really matter? I could just say, “People exist, we know that, let’s move on to something else”.

Here is a second, related question: If ontology does matter for doing sociology, how do I connect ideas about ontology to ideas about how society works? How would knowing the essential nature of a person (or group) affect how I theorise their actions? Does knowing that a person is not a static thing, but a process of individuations make any difference in how I think about their gender? (There are at least a couple of feminist articles on Simondon that suggest some social scientists think it does make a difference.) If you have any ideas I’d love to hear them.

Here’s what I think ontology could mean for social theory:

In the next few months I am going to be interviewing a number of men who will tell me about their lives. Instead of understanding these men as unchanging, fixed “souls”, I can analyse them as a developing process, who are in relationship with their world. Their gender, for example might not be fixed but changing over time as they relate to other men and women. What I believe someone actually is will affect my interpretation of their social world.

Here’s another idea. Elder-Vass (2012: 144) suggests that a theory of ontology can explain causality – how someone causes things to happen. I can cause the water to flow by turning a tap, for example. Socially speaking, ontology might explain how a parent can “cause” the development of gender in a baby by their words and actions. Or a church can “cause” a man to be excluded.

Perhaps I’ve answered my question. But I think there’s more that could be said. Do you have any ideas or comments?


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1. For Simondon individuals aren’t necessarily humans. Other things (cars, rivers, elephants) can be individuals too. The idea of non-human individuals, and technics, have been hugely influential on Actor Network Theory, Latour et al, and the philosophy of science. This part of Simondon’s theory is less important to me at present.

Debaise, Didier. (2012). What Is Relational Thinking? Inflexions. 5.

Elder-Vass, Dave. (2012). The Reality of Social Construction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harvey, Olivia; Popowski, Tamara; Sullivan, Carol. (2008). “Individuation and Feminism.” Australian Feminist Studies. 23(55).

Salmonella Dub – Conspiracy Dub. Great New Zealand band.

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Posted in ontology, Philosophy, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Sorry Hitch, You’re Nothing

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is dead. Long live… No, can we please not do that. Let’s tell it like it is. Hitchens, like all men of sense and reason™ was an atheist and a materialist. In other words, there is no God, and all that exists is the physical world we can measure with Hadron colliders, molecular resonance imaging, Hubble telescopes and schoolboy chemistry sets.

But he will be remembered! Briefly. For about ten years, maybe twenty, those who knew him or once read his columns may pause and say, “Ah, Hitchens. Damn fine writer.” Perhaps our children or grandchildren may find a dusty copy of “God Is Not Great” on our shelves and scan it curiously. More than likely, physical books will have gone the way of the cassette tape and be little more than a historical curiosity. Any surviving data of Hitchens’ will no doubt be lost in the tsunami of electronic porn, advertising and fiddle-faddle that passes itself off as “information” these days.

He will mean nothing. It may be small comfort to say that he never did mean anything, on a cosmic scale. Even on an earthly scale, he was little more than a ripple in the puddle of humanity. In 10,000 years Christopher Hitchens will be forgotten, like Madonna, Bill Clinton, Osama bin Laden and so many others who seem so terribly important to us now. If he is lucky he may rate a footnote in some obscure cyber-history of the early 21st century, to be catalogued and filed with the billion other PhD history theses published that year. If we haven’t already eradicated ourselves as a species, of course.

His dust will stick resolutely to the gravity well of a small and once-beautiful planet, perhaps fertilising a meagre plot of weeds. In a billion years a few atoms that once made up part of his spleen may be blown far across the galaxy as the dying sun ejects matter into eternity.

Sorry Hitch, you’re nothing. And the only reason we eulogise you is to help us avoid the knowledge that so too, are we.

Front Line Assembly | Everything Must Perish

Posted in atheism, God, god, Meaning of Life, ontology | Tagged: , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Shermer on Belief: I Want To Believe

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 30, 2011

Perhaps, dear reader, you can tell me whether Michael Shermer applies the concepts in his new book to his own ideas. Essentially, The Believing Brain (2011) says that we create beliefs and then find evidence to reinforce those beliefs. On those terms, Shermer’s statement is also a belief, and Shermer is merely finding evidence that supports his idea and ignoring other possibilities. I want to know if Michael Shermer raises this problem and answers it.

Shermer‘s book seems to be a good read. His essential point is “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism.” He uses neuroscience, psychology, history and some sociology to explain what people actually do. So far, so good. There are various chapters with stories of people who believe in things like ghosts, ufos and God. He uses Leonard Mlodinow for beliefs on cosmology, and Mlodinow scratches his back in return, providing one of the publisher’s reviews on the cover of Shermer’s book. If you find this blog interesting, you might also like my review of Mlodinow and Hawking’s book.

However, I’d like your help, because I simply don’t have time to read The Believing Brain in its entirety yet and I have to return it to the library in two weeks. In that two weeks I have to finish writing about 10,000 words so reading Shermer in depth just ain’t going to happen yet. The problem: If our brains create beliefs, and then we find the evidence to support these beliefs how does Shermer know his idea is true? He may simply “want to believe” that his ideas are correct and conveniently only look at evidence that supports him. Even the idea of “looking for evidence” is a belief itself, a belief about how one best discovers “knowledge”. I don’t think– from my brief look so far– that Shermer addresses this. I may be wrong. Can you tell me if Shermer talks about this?


If he doesn’t, I think it might undercut much of what he says, because deciding how we find truth and know truth is not a simple question. And some people don’t even think there is a “truth” to be found. The epilogue is where Shermer talks about what he thinks is the best method to find the truth, which he says is science. He writes, “What makes science so potent is that there is a well-defined method for getting at the answers to questions about the world – a world that is real and knowable.” Notice the assumption that the world is both real and knowable – this is philosophy, not science. He continues, “Where philosophy and theology depend on logic and reason and thought experiments, science employs empiricism, evidence and observational experiments. It is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependent realism.”

I may be reading too much into it, but it seems Shermer doesn’t like philosophy much. This is sad, because as I pointed out above, he doesn’t seem to realise how much of his own point of view actually depends on philosophy, not science. I was surprised to find no mention of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas, let alone Bruno Latour’s or even Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” even though I suspect the model of science Shermer is using is based on the latter. This is a constant surprise to me: Scientists who seem to have absolutely no awareness of the philosophy or sociology of science which their discipline is based on.

Let me say at this point, that I love science. I trained in it in my undergrad degree, and I’m so grateful to live in a world where we have things like cars, medicine, and the computer on which I’m typing this. What I don’t love is scientism, the view that almost turns science into a religion. Scientism says that science can solve anything, including things which science just isn’t built to solve. Shermer concludes his book with the statement that the truth is out there and that “science is the best tool we have for uncovering it.” I will conclude by quoting him with a small modification: “In the end, I want to believe. I also want to know. The truth is out there, and although it may be difficult to find, science is one of the best tools we have for uncovering it.”


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King’s X | Believe (Great song! Lyrics.).

Posted in agnostic, epistemology, Philosophy, Science, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

A Plea to the USA about the Death Penalty

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 22, 2011

By the time I write this it may be too late. Troy Davis, who may very well be an innocent man, will be killed by the state. Which is, if we truly believe in representative democracy, the same as being killed by us.

I’m sure you’ve heard various arguments, and you may have me pegged as a “bleeding heart liberal”. My life has been affected twice by murder. Firstly, a high school friend’s 21 year-old brother, who I’ll call Calvin, was killed at a party. I remember going to the trial. I remember seeing a good friend of Calvin’s give monosyllabic answers under questioning in the dock. This seemed strange until we learned later that the Mongrel Mob gang had beaten him up the night before to ensure he wasn’t too “helpful” to the prosecution. The young man who knifed Calvin and left him bleeding to death in his car was a gang prospect. Allegedly he was heard to mutter afterwards, “I’ve earned my [gang] patch now.”

The second time I was affected by murder was far worse. My sister’s best friend, at age 25 was brutally abducted, raped and murdered, and her body left to rot for 10 days before it was found. My sister still hasn’t recovered. It took 10 years before her killer was found. I have to admit, I wanted to hurt him. I do know what it feels like to feel the raging desire of revenge, and want to call it justice.

Troy Davis

Troy Davis.

But in the end, I know it’s not just. Here in New Zealand, the last man we executed was in 1957. Our society hasn’t gone downhill since then. In fact, we have a very low murder rate compared with yours in the USA. Since that time at least one man would have been executed here in the 1970s. Arthur Allan Thomas was convicted twice of murder and spent 8 years in jail before being proven innocent and pardoned. Only two years ago here in New Zealand, David Bain, who spent many years in prison for allegedly slaughtering his whole family, was released as innocent.

Giorgio Agamben has predicted the return of homo sacer, the sacred man “who may be killed and yet not sacrificed”. He sees the concentration camp as the paradigm of modern politics, as we increasingly strip our citizens of all humanity and leave them as “naked life”. Maybe he’s right. We are outraged when (say) Saudi Arabia cuts people’s hands off or executes them by stoning. But really, what is the difference? Making someone wait for 10 years of appeals with the threat of death hanging over them is akin to torture. And the actual execution process is not a lot better either – see the death by lethal injection scene in “Dead Man Walking”.

There are hideous crimes, and people who should probably be never released from prison. But I know from various angry attempts at revenge in my own life that killing them, in the end, makes me just as brutalising. And if it’s our state that’s doing it, then we are complicit. Isn’t it time for us to grow up?

Consider supporting the Amnesty International USA Abolish the Death Penalty campaign.

Ten reasons why Troy Davis should not have been killed.


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Rage Against The Machine | Killing In The Name Of

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Meditation Means You Don’t Like Your Self?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 9, 2011

Do you like your self? Does being a person in the world, living, loving, laughing make you happy? Why would you want to lose this self, then?

At present I’m working on a paper which is a Foucauldian reading of Buddhist meditation. As part of it I’m trying to understand the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, translated “no-self”. Here are some quotes:

Consider the way meditation is recommended by some doctors: their view is usually that meditation is simply a therapy for reducing stress. It is true that the ability to manage stress is a likely fringe benefit of meditation. From a Buddhist perspective, though, the point of meditation is to stimulate a process of change and development towards the ultimate goal of Enlightenment.” (Kamalashila, 1992: 4)

Epstein (2007: 42) speaks of “Misappropriation of Freudian terminology by scholars and practitioners of these Eastern traditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the confused concepts “ego” and “egolessness” … “This goal [of egolessness] is understood from a Western psychological perspective, rather than with the more subtle, originally intended Eastern meaning”. He quotes the current Dalai Lama who says, “this seemingly solid, concrete, independent, self-instituting I under its own power that appears actually does not exist at all” (Epstein, 2007: 52)


From a look at the canonical and commentarial works of Theravada, “[Cessation] is, in brief, a condition in which no mental events of any kind occur, a condition distinguishable from death only by a certain residual warmth and vitality in the unconscious practitioner’s body.” (Griffiths, 1986: 13)

Khema has a chapter titled “Removing the illusion of self” (Khema, 1997: 129). Buddha says to Poṭṭhapāda that there are three kinds of “acquired” (or assumed) self. The body, the “mind-made”, and the “formless acquired self”. “The Buddha continues: ‘What is the formless acquired self? It is without form, and made up of perception.’ … [Khema interprets this as] There is neither physical nor mental form. In the infinities of space and consciousness there is nothing that has any kind of boundary, but there is perception. If that were not so, we would not know we had experienced infinite space and consciousness.” Perception can also be considered consciousness. But perception is not “my” self, it just is. (Khema, 1997: 134) But even this is ultimately not the true self, but it’s the best we can do for now at this level of teaching. Although it’s hard, we have to realize we are “thinking in the wrong way” (Khema, 1997: 147,148, 153).

I include one quote from an academic that seems to imply something else. Dr V.V.S. Saibaba (2005: 187) writes, “the condition of the enlightened one is incomprehensible”, but “it is nowhere stated that the Buddha after his parinibbana has been annihilated”. He says this is why it can be considered orthodox even in Theravada to pray to or worship the Buddha- because the Buddha is still in existence.

In contrast, consider these words of Aristotle, from the 8th and 9th books of the Nicomachean Ethics.
“Seeing that we are alive is in and of itself sweet, for life is by nature good, and it is sweet to sense that such a good belongs to us. … All people find the fact of their own existence desirable … Existence is desirable because one senses that it is a good thing” Agamben (2009: 32)

As we can see, these viewpoints are very different. According to Aristotle, existence is self-evidently good and desirable. According to the First Noble Truth, existence is dukkha (suffering) and should not be desired. Although it’s subtle, the goal of Buddhist meditation seems to be to lose one’s own existence. So is meditation ultimately an anti-human activity? I’ve grown up with Western points of view, and I like having the experience of my “self”. I think experiencing a life, and valuing people as individual selves is a good thing.

What about you?


Is existence and the self a good thing? What do you think?
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Agamben, Giorgio. (2009). What Is An Apparatus? Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Epstein, Mark. (2007). Psychotherapy Without the Self. A Buddhist Perspective. New Haven:Yale University Press.
Griffiths, Paul. J. (1986). On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.
Kamalashila. (1992). Meditation. The Buddhist Way of Tranquility and Insight. Birmingham: Windhorse publications.
Khema, Ayya. (1997). Who Is My Self? A Guide to Buddhist Meditation. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Saibaba, V.V.S. (2005). Faith and Devotion in Theravāda Buddhism. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Disclaimer: I’m well aware that a non-adherent of a religion usually makes mistakes in emphasis, nuance and understanding when writing about it. My apologies for any factual errors. I feel uncomfortable criticising a spiritual path from the outside so I’m relying on those writing from the inside. I also acknowledge the large number of good, moral buddhists.

Check out one trippy Western response. “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream It is not dying It is not dying…”
The Beatles | Tomorrow Never Knows

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Would You Report Someone For Welfare Fraud?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 8, 2011

Lots of people are interested in my post a while back about welfare fraud in the USA. So I thought I’d do a follow up. First, I’ve got some current figures from reliable sources. Here’s part of a 2011 paper. If figures bore you, skip to the interesting stuff below:

Overseas findings
The UK Department for Work and Pensions estimated that in 2008-09, approximately 2.2 percent of all benefit expenditures, or 3b [pounds sterling], was overpaid as a result of fraud and error (DWP 2009). Half of this, about 1.1b [pounds sterling], was attributed to fraud, although this was based on a sampling procedure rather than convictions. The figure represented an increase, from a low of 0.6b [pounds sterling] in 2005-06, despite concerted efforts by the department to stop fraud (NAO 2008).

In the United States in 2008-09, the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General (2009) received 129,495 allegations of fraud and closed 8,065 cases, with 1,486 criminal prosecutions. These activities involved over US$2.9b in ‘questioned costs’; with US$23.3m in recoveries, US$2.8m in fines and a further US$25.5m in settlements, judgement and restitution orders.


Australian data
The following section presents data supplied by Centrelink on its compliance and fraud-related activities and outcomes. Unlike the UK Department for Work and Pensions, Centrelink does not provide estimates of fraud but reports on detected errors and fraud prosecution actions and outcomes.
Formal fraud investigations are usually initiated through compliance and eligibility reviews. Reviews occur in large numbers each year. There is a crossover of triggers and methods, including routine data-matching, random sampling, identity checks and public tip offs.

Table 1 reports on the outcomes of reviews for the three year period 2006-07 to 2008-09. Of note is the fact that typically, only 15.7 percent of reviews led to cancellations or reductions in payments. Of these, as few as 0.8 percent were referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP); with 0.5 percent being prosecuted. Prosecutions resulted in a 98.8 percent conviction rate. Overall, in the three years, 0.04 percent of customers were convicted of fraud. For the same period, fraud investigations were estimated to have produced $380.6m in gross savings and amounts targeted for recovery. This compares with $1.4b in overpayments identified and debts generated from the review process. Fraud therefore accounted for approximately 26.2 percent of invalid payments. Furthermore, on average, only 15.1 percent of investigations resulted in a prosecution referral. In 2008-09, Centrelink referrals accounted for 69 percent of defendants prosecuted by the CDPP (2009: 115-116).

Table 2 provides a snapshot of fraud across the top 15 benefit types. Within this group, the Single Parenting Payment and Newstart Allowance (unemployment benefit) together accounted for 72 percent of convictions and $33.5m of debt. The Disability Support Pension and Partnered Parenting Payment together accounted for a further 14.7 percent and $7.6m of debt.
Figure 1 shows longer term trends for compliance reviews and adjustments for the 12 year period from 1997-2008 (when Centrelink was established) to 2008-09.
They show that, in terms of the number of Centrelink customers, compliance reviews increased by 54.5 percent from an average of 41.1 percent of customers up to 2001-02, to an average 63.4 percent subsequently, while cancellations or adjustments more than doubled from 4.3 percent to 10.1 percent.
Figure 2 shows that referrals to the CDPP have increased less dramatically, with prosecutions and convictions at a fairly stable rate.

Exerpt from Prenzler, Tim. “Welfare fraud in Australia: Dimensions and issues.” Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice (2011)

Be careful in how you read the figures above, as it isn’t always clear what they mean. Also, these figures don’t tell the whole story. I haven’t fully absorbed the paper, but in essence, it supports my previous claim that less than 2% of people on welfare commit fraud.

In my last post, a few people queried the definition of fraud in the comments. So here’s the definition I’m using: Fraud is knowingly accepting welfare payments that you are not legally eligible for.

Note that it’s knowingly. Mistakes by the recipient, or the welfare agency are not fraud.

“Abuse of the system” is not fraud. If Bob is lazy and doesn’t want to work, but the welfare system has evaluated him fairly and allocated him funds, this is not fraud. You may wish to reform the system so that people like Bob can’t get money, but it’s not fraud. In New Zealand, where I live, it is not at all easy to get welfare, and it is not at all easy to live on welfare. It’s not a “cushy life”. Another paper I read suggests we feel more strongly about welfare fraud than we do about tax fraud or white collar fraud, arguably more serious crimes. I wonder why this is?

A few commenters assert that fraud is much more widespread than my figures show. Again, I reply: Show me the evidence.

Some commenters give anecdotal evidence, eg, “My sister has a baby and she hasn’t told them who the father is so she can get welfare, even though they are living together.” My question is, if you are so concerned about welfare fraud, why don’t you report them to the authorities? I know someone who has probably been collecting more welfare than she is entitled to for many years. Yet, if I report her, her son might suffer financially. Maybe we get the welfare system we deserve?

Would you report someone close to you for welfare fraud? If not, why not?


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Work songs in a Texas prison

Posted in ethics, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments »

The Multiverse is a Dead Parrot? Is Atheism In Trouble?

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 26, 2011

Is the Multiverse theory dead? If so, what implications might this have for belief in g0d?

I’ve written on cosmology from time to time. Recently I picked up Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which does a far better job of explaining M-theory than Hawking and Mlodinow’s recent book. At this point I need to send a public shout-out to Lunagrrrl, who sent me her copy of The Grand Design, which I previewed here. I had good intentions of reviewing it again, but I can’t add much to what I wrote. Get Greene’s book and skip to chapter thirteen instead, it’s much better.

The words below were originally posted last month by Santi Tafarella in his blog, Prometheus Unbound. I think this is worth sharing. Go check out the comments on his blog too.

Santi writes:

parallel multiverse

In 2008, cosmologist Bernard Carr of Queen Mary University of London, told a science journalist for Discover the following:

If there is only one universe, you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.

Carr said this because our universe appears to have numerous wildly improbable properties hard to explain by chance (especially if our known Big Bang universe is the only roll of the cosmic dice, setting its cosmological constants). Put bluntly, the cosmos appears to have been designed, and with very particular purposes in mind.

In whose mind?

Well, God’s of course!

Like an apple tree following its genetic imperatives, the universe appears to be following the imperatives of its cosmological constants. It apples galaxies, carbon-based life forms (like apple trees), and minds (like our own).

On planet Earth alone, there are 7 billion minds right now and counting.

Whooda thunk it?

Maybe Someone did.

The Discover article gave examples that illustrate our universe’s mind-boggling good luck (or creation by God, if the multiverse doesn’t come to the rescue of atheism). Here’s one:

The early universe was delicately poised between runaway expansion and terminal collapse. Had the universe contained much more matter, additional gravity would have made it implode. If it contained less, the universe would have expanded too quickly for galaxies to form.

The 2008 article that Bernard Carr was quoted in also noted this:

The credibility of string theory and the multiverse may get a boost within the next year or two, once physicists start analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, the new, $8 billion particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border.

Now, fast forward to 2011. What’s the status of string theory and the multiverse in light of the data that has come in from the LHC (Large Hadron Collider)?

Answer: Not good.

Atheists, are you listening?

Theoretical physicist and mathematician Peter Woit of Columbia University, discussing this summer’s String 2011 Conference at his blog, writes that at past conferences they:

. . . often featured a call for progress towards making predictions that could be tested at the LHC [Large Hadron Collider]. With LHC data now coming in, [opening speaker David] Gross acknowledged that this had been a failure: there are no string theory LHC predictions.


As for what the String 2011 Conference’s opening speaker, David Gross, said of the multiverse, here’s Peter Woit again:

Surprisingly, not a word from Gross about anthropics or the multiverse. I assume he’s still an opponent, but perhaps feels that there’s no point in beating a dying horse. Susskind isn’t there and oddly, the only multiverse-related talks are from the two speakers brought in to do public lectures (Brian Greene and Andrei Linde, Hawking’s health has kept him from a planned appearance). So the multiverse is a huge part of the public profile of the conference, but pretty well suppressed at the scientific sections. Also pretty well suppressed is “string phenomenology”, or any attempt to use string theory to do unification. Out of 35 or so talks I see only a couple related to this, which is still the main advertised goal of string theory.

A dying horse. Isn’t that sad? And remember: as goes string theory, so goes the multiverse.

And perhaps even atheism. As uber-atheist Jerry Coyne noted recently at his blog, how the multiverse debate pans out among physicists has unmistakable consequences for the God question:

[M]ultiverse theories . . . represent physicists’ attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for what others see as evidence of design.

But here’s how Peter Woit describes the String 2011 Conference summary by Jeff Harvey:

In Jeff Harvey’s summary of the conference, he notes that many people have remarked that there hasn’t been much string theory at the conference. About the landscape, his comment is that “personally I think it’s unlikely to be possible to do science this way.” He describes the situation of string theory unification as like the Monty Python parrot “No, he’s not dead, he’s resting.” while expressing some hope that a miracle will occur at the LHC or in the study of string vacua, reviving the parrot.

That the summary speaker at the main conference for a field would compare the state of the main public motivation for the field as similar to that of the parrot in the Monty Python sketch is pretty remarkable. In the sketch, the whole joke is the parrot’s seller’s unwillingness, no matter what, to admit that what he was selling was a dead parrot.

And, as for Scientific American’s recent coverage of the multiverse hypothesis, Woit is critical:

One might be tempted to criticize Scientific American for keeping this alive, but they just reflect the fact that this pseudo-science continues to have significant influence at the highest levels of the physics establishment.

The multiverse is pseudo-science. Really?

Based on what Bernard Carr said in 2008, and what Woit reports of the goings-on at the String 2011 Conference and in Scientific American, should this alert us to the possibility that atheism itself might be quietly trending in the direction of Monty Python’s dead parrot?

Monty Python | Dead Parrot Sketch


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Posted in atheism, cosmology, Philosophy, Physics, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 26 Comments »

Expanding the Mind

Posted by spritzophrenia on March 11, 2011

Apropos of nothing, here are some sites I enjoy. I used to have RSS feeds from them until I discovered how much bandwith my RSS reader sucked. Some of them I haven’t looked at in months, and it’s a salient reminder to return. In no particular order:

Science and Theology
Justin is a biologist who writes thoughtfully about religion and science.

“When I’m not watching sports or laughing at life, I enjoy reading and writing on science & religion/theology, with interests as of late that include brain/mind, evolution, the soul, and what it means to be human. I am deeply committed to science but believe that it is not the sole provider of truth. I resonate the most with the “scientist-theologians”, the most well-known being John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour, and Arthur Peacocke. The pursuit is both an academic and personal one for me and I write from within the framework of Christian faith.”

Prometheus Unbound
Santi is an agnostic academic who quite happily skewers both atheists and the religious when it suits him. He’s good at referencing great literature. I read him regularly.

Huffington Post Religion
In an age when many newspapers no longer have dedicated religion reporters, it’s heartening to find such a good resource on a popular site. As I’ve said before, I don’t think religion or spirituality is going away anytime soon, much as committed atheists might wish it so. There’s articles on atheism here too.


“Revealing self-aggrandizement and superstition in self-realization since 2005.” Reading this, you could be forgiven for thinking every guru on the planet is dodgy as fuck. I think the writers are probably followers of “Eastern mysteries”, but I appreciate their candid exposure of frauds.

Thoughtful blog by a Saudi woman. What more do I need to say?

The Piety that Lies Between
Eric Reitan teaches philosophy, and calls himself a “progressive christian”. He tends to write long posts, but it’s worthwhile stuff.

Mark Vernon
Another agnostic, Mark Vernon wrote After Atheism, a book I rather like. He’s an agnostic theist, or agnostic christian who writes about all kinds of cultural-philosophical stuff.

Barth’s Notes
One of the most respected news and investigative journalism sites on religion, particularly the more obscure stuff. He knows his subject, and is remarkably fair. I still have no idea what his personal beliefs are.

Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture
Sociology and media studies for those who like dance music! Doof doof doof.

When you’re bored with news from the big boys, get your news from the radical fringe. Who turn out to be not so radical or fringe-y after all. In fact, some of this looks eminently sensible and well-reported.


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Buggles | Video Killed the Radio Star

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Should We Tolerate the Intolerant?

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 17, 2011

Thankyou all for your comments yesterday, I found them really helpful.

In American Fascists Chris Hedges quite seriously analyses the US Christian Right as a fascist movement. One thesis of the book disturbed me. He quotes Karl Popper:

Unlimited Tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

~ The Open Society and Its Enemies 1:263

Christian Fascism

Hedges himself writes:

Debate with the radical Christian Right is useless. We cannot reach this movement. It does not want a dialogue. It is a movement based on emotion and cares nothing for rational thought and discussion. It is not mollified because John Kerry prays or Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school. Naive attempts to reach out to the movement, to assure them that we too, are Christian or we, too, care about moral values, are doomed. This movement is bent on our destruction. The attempts by many liberals to make peace would be humorous if the stakes were not so deadly. These dominionists hate the liberal, enlightened world formed by the Constitution, a world they blame for the debacle of their lives. They have one goal– its destruction.

~ page 202

These quotes make me uncomfortable. What would we think if it was the Christian Right saying this about us? Is it true that the only exception to tolerating all, is not to tolerate the intolerant?


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Slayer | Cult
“Religion is hate, religion is fear, religion is war”

Posted in agnostic, Christianity, ethics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 19 Comments »