The Standing Invitation

Archive for September 2011

Equality and Equivalence

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We are all born free. That is one of the central tenets of liberalism: that, in the natural order of things, our default setting is absolute freedom to do whatever we want to do and to be whatever we want to be. It is essential that we make this assumption, even if it is only a theoretical ideal, because it lets us do something extraordinary: it lets us look at one person having power over another person and ask: why should that be the case?

It is the presumption of liberty that makes authority look unnatural. Authority, not freedom, is the phenomenon that needs to explain itself, justify itself. It is the corollary to being innocent until proven guilty: the burden of proof is placed firmly on the shoulders of those who would tell you what you can and cannot do.

Those thinkers who accept this presumption of liberty are called ‘liberals’ in the technical sense, but many of them are far from what I would call liberal. Hobbes, for example, recognises that freedom is natural, but that it is also dangerous; and that the best form of government is a repressive tyranny that will keep us in line. For a liberal, this is not very liberal.

A liberal liberal knows that no authority, however noble its intentions, is wise enough to govern with absolute power; and so one of the tasks of liberal philosophy is to try to find the absolute minimum standards of coercion needed to make a society function.

Take the entire spectrum of human societies that exist now or have ever existed and arrange them in a row ­– a cultural police line-up. There will be a lot of variation: there will be monarchies, democracies, theocracies, there will be oppressed minorities, there will be enslaved masses. It will be a mixed bunch, and much that we see will appal us. But we know that nobody, least of all us, knows the right way to run a country. Recognising our own fallibility, we must respect their right to develop however they choose, as long as our minimum standards are met.

What should these standards be? It is an important and immensely difficult question.

How should we feel about societies in which certain groups are excluded from certain professions ­– say, women are barred from engineering, or men barred from childcare? I personally find this a barbaric arrangement. But I do not think it is necessarily below the minimum standard. There may be some ways of setting up a society in which all participants are better off if there is some regimentation of roles.

The measure of its worth would be in the equivalence of opportunity, not in the equality. If people in dramatically unequal roles can all find an equivalent happiness within those roles, then this society cannot be objected to on liberal grounds. To presume that absolute equality is the only way of ensuring equal happiness is to claim a degree of infallibility that no liberal should feel comfortable with.

Written by The S I

September 30, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Hume on Neutrinos

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With the scientific world abuzz with reports of neutrinos appearing to travel faster than the speed of light, I have become painfully aware that what I know about modern physics I could fold in half and fit between the keys of a typewriter without seriously impeding its function.

So when I heard about the discovery, I went to what I felt to be the most relevant academic treatise on the subject, which I found highly appropriate despite it being 263 years out of date.

David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was published in 1748 and deals with the problem of how we are able to know things. Since Hume believed that everything we know comes from experience ­– from evidence and experimentation, as opposed to revelation and belief – the book hits at the very core of scientific way of thinking.

When I heard of a discovery that appears to completely contradict the present scientific consensus, I went to Hume. In particular I went to chapter 10 of his Enquiry, a two-part essay entitled Of Miracles.

A miracle, for Hume, is “a violation of the laws of nature”. We determine the laws of nature by our experiences of how the world works. What we call a ‘good’ law of nature is one that we see demonstrated over and over again. Every time we have let go of a ball in mid-air, it has fallen; through habit of association we come to expect that the ball will always fall, and we arrive at a law of nature that says that all released balls fall ­– let’s call this gravity.

The questions is: how should we react to someone’s story that once he saw a ball float in mid-air ­– that he saw the force of gravity disappear? In essence, how should we react to a miracle?

Hume’s general principle, and it’s a good one, is this: “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.”

In the case of our friend saying the ball didn’t fall, we must ask ourselves: what is more likely? That the man is mistaken/lying/joking, or that gravity really did stop for him? If it’s just one man’s account, unsupported by evidence, then of course we are within our rights to dismiss him out of hand (A more modern commentator: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”)

But if he comes back with photos, confirmatory experiments, and other, independent witnesses, eventually it comes to the point where it really would be more miraculous that this was a mistake. Then gravity would be a weakened hypothesis. We would pose a new law of nature: that gravity usually holds, but in some cases doesn’t, as in the following examples…

Whatever new theory, or extension of the old one, takes the place of the traditional concept of gravity, we would listen to it, but with caution and scepticism, until the evidence in its favour built up to make it more certain.

Whenever a scientist ­– or indeed anyone at all – comes out with something new, something really new, think of sceptical old Hume. In his own words:

A wise man … proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability.


Hume’s Enquiry can be found here.

Written by The S I

September 28, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The Economics of AIDS

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Another short for you today. This is a video in which an economist presents the case for treating AIDS not by treating AIDS, but by treating malaria. It’s an interesting perspective…

Watch! Enjoy! Absorb!




Written by The S I

September 26, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Politics, Science

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War No Longer Exists

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“War no longer exists.”

This is a bold statement, but Rupert Smith is certainly one with the authority to make it. He was a general in the British Army, seeing action in the Gulf, Sarajevo and Northern Ireland among other places. With these words he begins his book The Utility of Force; he goes on to say that the last real war in the sense that most people think of it was the Yom Kippur War – fought in 1973.

The problem, he says, is how you define war.

The general pattern of war is this: Peace, Crisis, War, Resolution, Peace. And it has always been clear that the more power you dedicate to fighting the war, the better your chances of success will be. The best chance of winning, therefore, will come from a society that totally dedicates itself to winning, by conscripting an army from the general population and by diverting industry to produce munitions ­– in essence, bringing civilian life to a standstill for the duration of the conflict.

For the generals and governments at in conflict, the rule is this: in order to restore the peaceful way of life you are trying to protect, you need to declare war at the last possible moment, and win it as quickly as possible.

And, in the West, we have been getting increasingly good at both of these things. For hundreds of years we improved our means of dealing with the massed armies of our various enemies, until 1945, when we built and used the atomic bomb. It is now absolutely guaranteed that, if push comes to shove, any massed army anywhere in the world can instantly be defeated. We are invincible.

Or at least we would be, if our enemies just played by the rules.

Because now, among nations of the world too poor to assemble their own nuclear arsenal, people have developed their own way of fighting: they have learned that, against an opponent who can destroy any massed army, the secret is not to mass. They fight on their own ground, on their own terms, at their own pace, and among their own people.

They have also redefined victory. To us, victory is expressed in terms of capture, destroy, kill, incapacitate. Our enemies instead would use words like persuade, wear down, exhaust. They know that the real battle takes place, not in the country being invaded, but in the country doing the invading: they must make the war unpopular at home. They do this by fighting wars of attrition. They allow us to capture cities, then keep up a steady drip of assassinations and bombings that make the headlines here. The conflict always remains below the level at which we would have to mobilise to fight a war, but never gives any respite. They wear us down. They take their time, knowing that the longer it drags out, the harder it will be for us to continue.

War no longer exists. Instead, we have a situation where gigantic armies invade a country in a matter of weeks, win every engagement and declare themselves victorious… and then, after years of ceaseless, sourceless violence, are forced to withdraw in the face of popular pressure from back home. It is a kind of conflict we do not yet know how to fight.



Rupert Smith lays this all out in exhaustive detail in his book The Utility of Force, but I found it extremely heavy-going. His speech given to the University of Bath, however, was exhilarating. Download the mp3 here.

Written by The S I

September 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The Power of Names

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Sometimes, it is enough simply to give it a name. That is all it takes to change the way people think about something.

Of course, it helps if the name is a good one ­– or at least a big one. Here is a name that I particularly like:


This is one hell of a name: 1185 letters long. Not particularly memorable, but marvellously descriptive in its own way. It is the name of a naturally-occurring molecule; following the iron rules of its etymology allows you to derive its exact chemical structure.

The name describes a very long molecule made out of a series of modules called amino acids, all strung together end-to-end like beads on a rosary. There are 22 amino acids found in nature, and they can be combined in any order to make up a protein. The protein is therefore defined by the sequence of amino acids that make it up – its primary structure. Forces between amino acids pull this immensely long thread into a tight three-dimensional tangle, generating a secondary and tertiary structures ­– the protein’s folds and creases, in which different kinds of chemistry can take place.

The name provides the primary structure, with the sequence of amino acids narrated in code: seryl is the code for the amino acid serine, tyrosyl stands for tyrosine, isoleucyl for isoleucine and so on.

Now, it would be a major synthetic challenge, but there is nothing in principle preventing us from making this molecule from scratch. Given the name, a peptide chemist (with a lot of time on her hands) could build it out of the original amino acids. The amino acids could themselves be made with crude oil drilled from the ocean floor as a starting material. Our gigantic molecule could be created afresh, in a laboratory, with no natural process involved ­– and yet the result would not just be like the molecule found in nature; it would be that molecule. The artificial form would be indistinguishable from the natural one.

Now, what is this molecule?

It is the protein coat of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus.

The protein coat is protects a strand of RNA that contains instructions, written in code for making the coat; these two things, coat and code, are all the virus is. Both have structures that are known down to the last atom. Both are reasonable targets for synthesis ­– things that could be made, from scratch, out of nothing at all.

And yet the Tobacco Mosaic Virus is a parasite, capable of self-replication in living cells. It causes disease in plants.

A lot of people would call the Tobacco Mosaic Virus a living thing. And yet it is only a molecule. Where does one end and the other begin? What is the sharp line between living matter and chemicals in jars?

Being able to give a living thing a purely chemical name highlights that there is no such line.

Written by The S I

September 21, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Domesticated Animals

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Here at the S I we like nothing more than a nice glass of milk after a long day of studying. But drinking milk is, in evolutionary terms, a very strange thing to do.

Fact of the day: most of the peoples on Earth are unable to digest milk. Surprising, isn’t it? Note the ‘s’ in ‘peoples’; that is where the clue is.

All mammals* are able to produce milk, but humans are alone on Earth in drinking it as adults. The problem is the carbohydrate lactose, a disaccharide sugar formed by a reaction between glucose and galactose in the mammary gland. Lactose is unique to milk, being found nowhere else in the body. As such, it requires special chemical equipment to break it down and digest it.

Lactose is broken down in the small intestine by an enzyme called lactase, which, in most mammals, is produced only when the mammal is very young; production tails off shortly after birth. After lactase production shuts down, it is impossible to digest lactose in the small intestine; one becomes ‘lactose intolerant’. In this event, lactose digestion occurs downstream, as it were, in the large intestine, where decomposition by intestinal bacteria fills the gut with unwanted gas and water. Naturally, people with lactose intolerance tend to avoid milk.

But I can drink milk. If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you can too. What makes this possible? The answer is surprising.

The ability to drink milk is an evolutionary phenomenon, and it occurred extremely recently. Only ten thousand years ago, before the agricultural revolution, people with a tolerance to lactose were the minority. This made sense in the terms of evolutionary economy: since your mother will stop producing milk, why continue to produce a costly enzyme to digest it?

Nevertheless, there was variation. Some people continued to produce lactase a little longer than the others. This variation was meaningless noise until the domestication of the cow, when suddenly it became a real advantage. For the first time, people other than children were able to access the energetic and nutritional powerhouse that is cow’s milk.

In times of scarcity this additional food source was a matter of life or death. Children who were able to drink cow’s milk later in life were more likely to survive than those who stopped producing lactase early. That’s one hell of a selection pressure. Effectively, in those parts of the world where cows were domesticated, the lactose-tolerant outbred the intolerant. In short, we evolved.

‘Domestication’ is the process by which a wild animal becomes accustomed to an agricultural environment. We think of cows as being domesticated by humans, but what the story of milk tells us is that it works both ways. On a world map, the presence of milk-producing cows is tracked by a detectable change in human genetic makeup.

We domesticated the cows to produce milk more or less consciously. But without realising it, we simultaneously domesticated ourselves to consume it.


Harold McGee, McGee on Food and Cooking

Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale

* Well, half of them.

Written by The S I

September 19, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Fry on Catholicism

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Just a quick one for you today, folks. If you haven’t already seen it, this is Stephen Fry’s speech against the motion that “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” Breathtaking and relevant stuff. Enjoy!

Part One

And Two

Written by The S I

September 17, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Politics

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