Monthly Archives: February 2013

We Need Newer Atheists

With the spring of modern science, the “God hypothesis” — as famously referred to by the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace — turned out less and less necessary to explain natural events. The phenomenon caused religiosity to decline, specially among educated people. As secular States developed and freedom of expression emerged as a human right, criticism of religion, both by philosophers and scientists, inevitably became widespread.

In this sense, the movement led by Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens — the so called New Atheists — is not new; although it was triggered by a new use of the power of religion: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the concept of reward in an afterlife, and blind faith on it.

On a sober review, the New Atheists present a modern, updated, supporting framework, for the individual that’s able to overcome the frightening concept of eternal punishment, often solidified during a religious childhood, and to realize that “everything is possible” or “God works in mysterious ways” are merrily shortcuts for intellectual escapism. Their books provide excellent guidance out of the mazes and away from the traps of faith in its pure form.

However, despite more recent attempts, such as Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality and Harris’ Free Will, the New Atheists, or the “old” ones for that matter, don’t have the same level of success in laying the foundations for a fulfilling life with atheism.

As it turns out, the pursuit of happiness is a journey far more complex than the logic of the involved chemical components and the understanding of the evolutionary processes behind them. Throughout history, besides the supernatural-related affairs, religion took care of many aspects related with the self and life in society, often times providing valuable answers, in the individual and collective realms, as in the practice of meditation, and the act of gathering to celebrate a common purpose, for instance.

But as technology gets more powerful, the world more connected, and cultures clash in unprecedented scale, it becomes too dangerous to leave guidance on these complicated topics to people who base their rationale on dogmas, supposedly sacred books from the ages of tribalism, dreams, and entities undistinguishable from imaginary friends.

This gap has been recognized. We can see the emergence of interesting movements, such as Secular Humanism, and thinkers are starting to approach the topic — see, for instance, recent work by the British philosopher Alain de Botton. Unfortunately, though, there is no solid, structured proposal, and the average atheist is in great part left to find his way through life individually, having to learn and test alternatives by himself.

In part, this is due to the fact that the territory of mind is largely unknown, and a honest, confident answer, can’t be formulated yet. It’s good that we treat the topic carefully, but we need more people, “newer” atheists, to start thinking and acting towards that goal. Because, as the cliche goes, life is too short — a fact we atheists are very aware of.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

The Fate of Kim Jong Un

Last December, North Korea impressed the world by finally succeeding in launching a satellite into space, meanwhile causing concerns about its intentions in developing ballistic missiles. While having celebrated the fact in his first New Year’s address as supreme leader of the country, Kim Jong Un’s overall discourse that day actually presented a peaceful tone, specially in regard to South Korea. But last week, concerns raised again as the Democratic People’s Republic performed its third nuclear test.

All later events considered, the intentions and future of the eastern asian country are rather unclear. But instead of trying to figure them out, perhaps a more pertinent question is: do they even know what they want? While North Korea as a country supposedly has some guidelines, its leader’s attitude suggests that he’s not quite sure about how to conduct his mandate.

Besides the fact that North Korea’s extensive list of economic, political, social, and diplomatic challenges by itself would impose doubts in anyone in charge of leading the country, when we consider that North Korea’s leader is just in his late 20’s, we get further evidence on why his behavior lacks consistence.

Young age leadership is not uncommon in non-democratic politic systems. If we look at the list of world youngest state leaders, we find Kim Jong Un in the first position, and the king of Bhutan, age 32, in second. Back in history, Alexander the Great became king of Macedon at age 20; Queen Victoria inherited the throne when she was 18; and Puyi, the Last Emperor of China, became so at the age of — wait for it — 2 years and 10 months. In democratic countries the picture is more reasonable. Considering the American case, for example, the youngest of the 44 presidents was Theodore Roosevelt, which assumed office at age 42, and the median age of accession is of about 55 years.

It can be argued that being over 30 does not imply certainty about political convictions, as reminded by Mitt Romney’s behavior during the last presidential campaign. But such cases are outliers. In general, it’s not a good idea to assign positions of such broad influence and responsibility to citizens that are barely old enough to be sure about personal affairs such as career and marriage. Complicated issues related with country leadership demand professional and personal experience that require much more time to accumulate.

Of course, the people of North Korea didn’t have much choice, and due to scandals involving Kim John Un’s eldest half brother and previous favorite to succeed Kim Jong Il, neither the current leader did. Still, there’s hope that the situation might end up being beneficial for the North Korean people. If the international community exploits the current scenario by raising its tone on Pyongyangs exhibitionist displays of military power, increasing economic sanctions, and pressing for internet access, eventually their economy will get stagnant enough, and the population informed enough, that Kim John Un will have no alternative but to conduct beneficial reforms similar to those Mikhail Gorbachev implemented in the agonizing Soviet Union.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

The State of Affairs in Space Exploration

Lovers who reside in New York City have plenty of options to spend time together, but laying in the grass of Central Park to admire the sky doesn’t sound like an interesting idea. There’s almost nothing to be seeing, for the sky is “shadowed” by city lights. Geeky lovers will disagree, though: on certain days, the International Space Station is visible to the naked eye.

One is reluctant in ranking the ISS as the most astounding of the engineering achievements to date, in view of the Apollo Program, or the cinematographic landing of a car-sized robot in the surface of Mars, for instance. But once we consider the non-technical aspects involved, the orbiting microgravity lab stands incomparable, for it’s the product of a collaborative effort between nations, an approach to nature exploration and scientific pursuit that nurtures hope in the future of our species.

Yet, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we are treating space adventures with the proper level of maturity. Nationalist and military arguments still prevail as driving forces in the development of the required technologies, and to see that we don’t need to go further than mentioning the high level of propaganda surrounding the recent rocket launches by Iran and the North Korea, and how western politicians reacted with fear that those countries are actually aiming to develop ballistic missiles. (Not surprisingly, those fears weren’t mentioned when South Korea conducted its own satellite launch, shortly after their enemy to the north.)

It can be argued that this is not a per-country competition, but instead a race between the West and the East, reflecting the current bi-polarization of the globe, in a way similar to what happened during the Cold War. There’s, in fact, some evidence for that: besides the ISS example, the U.S. currently relies on russian rockets to get their astronauts to space, and NASA’s next-generation spacecraft will have a service module built by the European Space Agency.

Nevertheless, such collaboration is not seen among non-western countries: there’s no obvious alignment between Iran and North Korea, for instance, and China wants to be self-sufficient as well, even though they started out with help from Russia. Besides, there’s high competition among western countries, including private companies such as SpaceX, in the high-profile market of satellite launching. In addition, Russia, Europe, China, and India are working to have their own constellation of satellites for location purposes, aiming independence from the GPS system, which is maintained by the U.S.

With a few exceptions, the state of affairs in space exploration still resembles the first-come-first-served mentality of the Age of Discovery. Although that’s nothing but expected by anyone who’s old enough to have lost naivety about the human nature, maybe we should pay more attention to the consequences of a greedy hunt for resources here on our fragile planet. Does every country need it’s own GPS system? Should private companies be entitled to mine asteroids? Should nations with developed and tested space technologies deny sharing it with peaceful, developing countries, and let them prone to mistakes that can cost lives?

Countries whose authorities see rockets mostly as ads for nationalist pride notwithstanding, at least the developed democratic nations should invest in less provincial and more collaborative approaches, now that their own phase of selfish, exhibitionist muscle-flexing, is in the past.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

There’s Too Much Buzz About Booze

(Appeared in Washington Square News.)

A couple of months ago I attended a seminar about improving social skills in the academic world. At some point, the speaker was talking about how to properly refuse an alcoholic beverage during a social event. As it turns out, it’s not polite to say “sorry, I don’t drink alcohol,” she explained. You have to tell the other person that you are “in a soft-drink mood” that day, so as not to give the impression that you are judging your interlocutor’s drinking preferences.

If, like myself, you are not particularly tempted by the chemical “benefits” of ethanol, you might be wondering how long it’ll take before people like us have to attend support groups as part of a treatment to our “problem.”

Ironic extrapolations apart, as a matter of fact I do judge people who drink alcohol, and here is my judgement. If your genetic code is such that you appreciate ethyl-based beverages, the amount that you drink is not of my business, as long as you keep the consequences of your drinking habits to yourself and those who support your behavior. If you are a soft-drink person who decide to start drinking just to “fit” into some sort of group, then you should be ashamed for not doing a small sacrifice for the other side, in view of helping to change our extremely alcohol-centered culture. After all, if people on the group you are trying to be part of do not respect your drinking preferences, than the group is certainly not for you.

At first view, it seems to be easy to argue against the consumption of alcohol. To start with, I could list some disturbing long-term effects to the cardiovascular, immune, digestive, and nervous systems. As if that weren’t frightening enough, I’d bring in some up-to-date statistics showing the correlation between booze and violent crime, hospital visits, sexual abuse, and car accidents. Afterwards, an emphasis on the greater gravity of binge drinking, and on the amplified damaging effects of alcohol when the brain is developing (as in the teen ages), should settle the question.

But those facts are widely known, and yet, social pressure out-weights worrisome prognostics for too many individuals. The path is well known: some social drinkers turn into daily drinkers, and a portion of daily drinkers eventually become alcohol addicts. The pressure is in part due to the (easily refutable) view that alcohol is necessary for a person to feel more comfortable (the fashionable word these days is “confident”) in social settings. Another part is consequence of the fact that alcohol has been omnipresent in social events ever since mankind discovered it, and there haven’t been too many newcomers that bothered questioning the social conventions. I mean, why aren’t bars that offer only exotic tropical juices more common? Is it really necessary to drink alcohol in order to appreciate live music and conversation?

The third important factor is marketing pressure. Companies make sure that our brains are bombarded with views that vodka X is associated with “awesome party with lots of hot girls,” or that beer Y is synonym of fun gatherings with your friends while watching a game. Sure enough, special ads are prepared for times of festivities such as Mardi Gras (or Carnival), when consumption increases. This type of marketing is somehow regulated in most countries (in Brazil, for instance, beer ads must be accompanied by warnings for moderate drinking), but considering the gravity of alcohol for public health and safety, one wonders how strong is the lobby of those companies in the political sphere.

The U.S. are an exception in what concerns the age threshold from which it’s legal to order alcohol, establishing it as 21, while in most other places the starting point is 18. It’s a policy to be proud of, since, in general, full brain maturity is not reached until age 25 (well beyond the teen years). Likewise, in line with the marketing argument just presented, the so called “open container laws” also deserve merit.

Alcohol is entirely banned in some cultures, due to religious beliefs. Seeing booze as malefic does not require referring to super-natural law enforcement, though. The measurable facts are clear, and the only reason they are ignored is the cultural hype that has been built around it, at such a level that it leads non-drinkers to feel bad about their condition. In light of this, I warn the soft-drink person who is concerned about social politeness that it’s in fact wrong to say “sorry, I don’t drink alcohol.” But to correct the phrase, it suffices to subtract “sorry.”