Tuesday, 30 August 2011

What is truth? (updated 2 Oct 2012)

Previous postings have expressed concern about the danger of claiming there is no objective truth. If this belief took hold civilisation would come to an end, to be replaced by paganism, where our world is at the beck and call of numerous arbitrary gods, or a kind of atheism, where all is pointless, with either view leading to a dangerous fatalism in which we have no free will and there is no incentive to understand the extraordinary reality from which nature and humanity have emerged.


Plato
But what is truth? It is not so easy to pin down. Dictionary.com has several definitions of truth. The one I’m using is as follows: the ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience. Ultimately, there can only be one truth. The definition refers to ‘the...reality’, not ‘a...reality’. Perceived experience includes not only that realised through the senses but that presented to us by scientific instruments and logical interpretation.

{Paragraph added 21 Sept 2012}. That  truth somehow exists is beyond doubt. Consider this statement: there is no  truth.  The statement itself is logically self contradictory because it is claiming to be  true. Relativism is, in the last analysis, ruled out completely.
 
Yet from generation to generation and from place to place at any one time in history different proclamations of the truth are made, because each assertion of truth is only an approximation. No-one has the authority to proclaim that he or she knows the absolute truth. However, he or she can claim to know the best approximation to it at a given stage in human history, although the adjective ‘approximate’ is usually omitted. We get closer to both scientific and spiritual truth as time goes on: our understanding of the universe, of God and our relationship to God evolves, as each generation ‘stands on the shoulders’ of previous generations.



Newton’s laws of motion  were superseded by Einstein’s because the latter have improved explanatory power – they describe a greater slice of reality in a coherent and simple way. They are closer to the truth and until more powerful laws are discovered we call them ‘true’. But only one set of laws is the truest at any moment in history.

Plato's Academy
What if someone comes up with a theoretical model that allows us to calculate all the phenomena that Einstein’s theory calculates? Would that be just as true? This is where Occam’s Razor comes in – the principle that if two theories are equal in explanatory power the simpler, more coherent one is regarded as the truest.

 So if Einstein’s theory was rivalled by one that explained and predicted phenomena equally well it would only be regarded as closer to the truth if it was also simpler and still coherent.

For the last few decades quantum physics, elementary particle theory and cosmology have been in a state of flux. There are no models which fit all the observations and hopefully someone will have the inspiration to look at reality in a different way and work out a mathematical model (a kind of metaphor) which shows how all the observations can be described, understood, interrelated and predicted.  

Some phenomena are modelled in ways which may appear to contradict the idea of one truth. 

For example, a beam of light behaves both as an advancing electromagnetic wave in some situations and as a beam of particles (photons) in others. Neither model is claimed to be the truest. It is just that the light is best modelled as waves or particles depending on its energy and what it is passing over or through or around (slits in screens, wires, glass, gas, vacuum etc.).  There is only one model (description) which is best adopted for a particular kind of situation and that model is the truest we have. 

So, if you are designing a telescope it is best to model light as a wave which is reflected, refracted and diffracted by the lenses. If you are trying to explain how a laser works it is best to model the light as photons interacting with atoms inside the laser.

In the future I believe that light may be represented in a new way - a single way which simply explains the observed optical phenomena in all situations and allows us to calculate results more easily than with the present models. In which case the model will be truer than existing models, i.e. one step in the direction of an absolute truth which will never be attained, at least in our present mode of existence. As a believer in a monotheistic Creator I have faith that one day there will be a theoretical model which encompasses both wave and particle aspects of light.

 So science is evolving. But spirituality is also evolving. In this arena one has to go with what seems reasonable or intutitively right or what is revealed by the godhead - it is outside of science. An example would be to make the reasonable assumption that the world was not created a week ago. There is no way this can be proved by logic. All the apparent evidence, such as old bank transactions,  till receipts, historical documents and astronomical observations could have been manufactured by some supercontrolling extraterrestrial agency to give us the illusion that the universe is 13.7 billion years old or indeed exists at all. No sane person would really believe this. It is a matter of resonable faith.
 
Many theologians today, having thought deeply about the accounts of Christ, His apostles and the Resurrection ; and re-examining scripture in  a historical context, have a very different theological model from some of the past ones, tainted as they were by seekers of earthly power, one which is loving and generous to all humanity - with the Holy Spirit active in all nations, races and religions, and ‘judgement’ being that which humans inflict on themselves individually or collectively by departing from God’s divine laws, and eternal life being a relationship to Christ which transcends physical death but starts here on Earth.

We still have much to learn; but considering the destructive power available today, in nuclear bombs and biological weapons, it is remarkable that we have not exterminated ourselves or been reduced to the barbaric remnants of today’s civilisation, one that has virtually eradicated smallpox, abolished slavery in the west, legislated against racial discrimination, emancipated women, introduced national health services and hospices, enacted incredibly effective aid programs, spawned innumerable charities and set standards of human rights worldwide. The doctrine of love is propagated worldwide despite pockets of sectarian hatred and death or the greed of power-hungry minorities. Today’s world, with all its imperfections, is surely nearer the reality envisaged and foretold by Christ than that of any previous time. 

To me that means spiritual evolution.

Click ‘comments’ below if you want to react to this posting.

John
Author, 2077 AD

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Declining car usage in the West: more evidence.

A previous post Has road traffic in the west peaked? pointed to emerging data on the peaking of traffic and so I was interested to see in a recent article The end of the road by Fred Pearce, New Scientist 13 August 2011 (p.26-7) that more evidence of this trend is available:

  • In the USA sales of new cars has fallen from 11 million in  1985 to 5.5 million in 2009.(The cars do, however, last longer.)
  • In Japan, where they talk of demotorisation’, per-capita road travel peaked in the 1990s.
  • In the USA, UK, Germany, France, Australia and Sweden the per-capita road travel began to decline in 2004 and this has continued to the present.
  • The fraction of American 17-year olds with a drivers licence has dropped by about 25% since 1998.
  •  In both the USA and the UK young people are seeing the biggest decline in car usage.(Social scientists detect a new ‘culture of urbanism’, with the young shunning the suburbs and preferring to spend their money on other things than cars.)
  •  The correlation between rising income and per capita car travel breaks down when income exceeds $30,000 p.a.  (Could this be because the affluent prefer to spend their money on flying?)
Offsetting this decline in road distance travelled per person the rate of car occupancy has fallen. In the USA  the average car on the average journey carries 1.7 people, compared to 2.2 in 1970. Also, anecdotally, I have noticed that cars are getting bigger and more powerful. Frequently, I have to park between two private vehicles each the size of a commercial van, often just carrying one person. The article backs this up.

Sources quoted in the  article:

The road... less traveled, 2008 report by the Brookings Institution, Washington DC
World transport policy and practice vol.17, p.31
Transport Reviews, Lee Schipper, vol.31, p.357
Phil Goodwin at the University of West England, Bristol
Maurie Cohen, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark

In the developing world, especially China and India, private car usage is of course expanding fast.  Hopefully, at some time not too far off, new ways of getting from A to B flexibly will be found.

See also Has the US reached peak car? (Sci. Amer.)

A comments facility is available below. Alternatively email me at

cosmik.jo@gmail.com

John
Author, 2077 AD

Friday, 26 August 2011

Rejuvenating the High Street

In the UK the centres of many of our villages, towns and cities are beginning to look derelict as failing retailers close down and the shop windows are boarded up. Presumably it is the same in many other nations.

But does it have to be like this?

The cost structure of business is changing as energy, transport and raw materials become more expensive, and as governments factor in environmental costs previously ignored by accountants. Recycling, repair and upgrading are becoming more viable than planned obsolescence and disposal. The cost of manufacturing in the developing world is increasing while new small-scale manufacturing, such as 3D printing, can now be bought by small businesses.

Consequently, new kinds of enterprise could become viable.

Here are some possible businesses which could inhabit our High Streets in the future, even the near future:


  • Goods sampling stores. Online advertising could be complemented by local stores for sampling and handling the goods pictured on the web. Sometimes images and text are not enough to warrant a buying decision. E.g. certain expensive craft ware needs to be handled, chairs sat on, tools handled, fabrics felt. The goods would not be sold from these stores, although terminals for ordering could be available on the premises as an alternative to ordering from home. These would probably be chain stores in which web advertisers bought space.


  • Cobblers. These would combine bespoke manufacture, crafting and sale of a pair of shoes on the premises. The customer would choose a general design from the web or on the premises, their feet would be accurately scanned to produce a mould by 3D printing (this technology is already available) and a skilled cobbler would craft a perfectly fitting shoe around this according to the customer’s wishes. The shoe maker would buy in the usual leather, plastic, rubber etc. in bulk. The shoes would be expensive, made to last and able to be repaired or partially recycled.


  • Tailors. The customer would be greeted by a member of staff, shown a selection of materials to feel and choose from, then enter a booth to be scanned and to view images of herself or himself in various pre-selected outfits. The suit or pullover or dress would be accurately made to measure on site and at lower cost than in the tailors of old, yet he or she would directly interact with a person, not a machine interface. The process would not be fast enough to avoid a second visit to collect the purchase but it would be worth it for those who feel clothes are important.


  • Furniture makers and sellers. A skilled carpenter has at his or her disposal computer-assisted tools and lathes which enable him to quickly construct a whole item of furniture (not just part of it, as on a production line). The customer would specify the size and style from computer images, as well as the type of wood and the finish from actual samples. The furniture would either be delivered in a day or so or it could be collected. Again, human interaction would be an important part of the service.


  • Charity shops with enterprise booths. Oxfam, World Vision, Salvation Army, Christian Aid, Hospice shops etc. are already prominent on our High Streets. This is an obvious trend which small businesses could both help and profit from by having small booths within the shops. Each would benefit from footfall generated by the other and the charity could recoup some of its leasing costs by charging whoever occupied the booth (e.g. someone selling home-baked cakes or local arts and crafts or cutting keys etc.).


  • IT centres for upgrading, recycling and repair. These could be a response to the rapid change in IT plus the need to minimise the fallout of waste as products are discarded with each new generation of mobile phone, tablet computer, touch pad, PC, printer, router, modem etc.  Customers would have access to on-the-spot expertise and advice as well as able to book home visits or be put in contact with independent local experts. Such centres would be linked into a national recycling and disposal infrastructure. Hopefully future IT will be designed to be more upgradeable and compatible and longer lasting.


  • Training units. As western nations adapt to new kinds of business and technology, and as the median age of populations increases, new skills will have to be taught to young and old alike. A lot of this could be done on a modular basis - partly online from home but also by personal tutoring or face-to-face tuition, individually or in small groups. This will need premises so why not have shop-sized units in the High Street which could be flexibly rented by the training organisations, whether privately or publicly financed?

I am sure there are many examples of how with imagination we could better utilise our town centres. This posting is to stimulate discussion on how to help them thrive and make the High Street an interesting place to walk down. 

Remember that you can click the ‘comments’ button below to enter your own ideas or responses. Later I can publish them for others to see when they click the same button.

John
Author, 2077 AD


Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The age of debt: the party's over



What is the reality of the current financial situation in the developed world? Nobody knows but we have to discuss it and in the end a few people in a position to do so have to make decisions which will profoundly affect the material prosperity and security of everyone on the planet. Even the developing world depends on these decisions.

Here are the major factors which world leaders, from Europe, USA and China currently have to take into account.

  • Most banks in the world have been directly rescued from insolvency by tax payers in the major economies i.e. by government intervention; but the governments have bought bonds in the banks with money they do not have, i.e.'fictional money entered into financial computer systems.
  • Since the governments which have rescued the banks are themselves heavily in debt the banks will fail again unless international pre-emptive action is taken. In such a scenario there will be no, or limited, protection for depositors, whether they be individuals or institutions.
  • The major economies owing most money abroad per head of the population are the UK ($144,300), followed by the USA ($45,100) followed by the European Union ($27,900). These are approximate figures for last year.  These figures  are from the World Factbook (CIA), quoted in Wikipedia See comments below.
  • Within the eurozone’s 17 countries Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland have had serious debt problems. In recent months attention has also focused on Italy (spending deficit plus slow growth) and France (in that it has a lot of money tied up in the USA, which is more indebted than the eurozone).
  • Economic growth in both the USA and Europe is slowing down and this affects their ability to generate wealth as a means of paying off debt. Even Germany’s economy has recently stalled (0.1% GDP growth in second quarter of 2011).
  • China also has its problems. Its foreign market is declining, its population has growing inequalities and there are property bubbles in its major cities.  Its economy is still growing significantly (around 8% p.a.) but by much less than the world has been used to. Who will buy exports from the west?
  • The USA’s economic well being is reliant upon a debt reduction programme, upon investment in productivity-enhancing infrastructure, training and education and upon economic export-led growth.


If the eurozone breaks up, i.e. if Germany is unable to lend money to weak, indebted countries within the eurozone it could set off a major world banking crisis beyond the control of any government or governments. Nobody other than some speculators have an interest in this, especially Britain with external debt per head exceeded only by Ireland (over $0.5 million), which fortunately is only a small country.

One plan for keeping the eurozone together is for it to issue eurobonds from the European Central Bank. Anyone owning eurobonds would be able go have them redeemed from the joint resources of the 17 eurozone members. This would require some hard thinking and talking by the eurozone members and most of the money would come from Germany; but Germany could have more to lose than any other state if the eurozone collapsed.  In return the eurozone countries would have to give up some of their economic sovereignty.

China is looking for a safe currency in which to store its sovereign wealth and which it can use for international trade. Traditionally this has been the US $. But the eurozone is bigger than the USA and has less debt per person. So China it is likely to be fully behind any attempt to keep the eurozone in tact.

 If Germany and China can't rescue the eurozone another possibility is that strict balancing of the books would be enshrined in the constitution of each eurozone state, if not every state in the European Union.There would have to be a long lead in time (10 years?) but if agreement can be reached on this it could be the best solution. If Europe remained stable it would help the USA and China sort out own their problems.

Feedback welcome.
John

Author, 2077 AD

cosmik.jo@gmail.com




Thursday, 11 August 2011

UK debt and looting - not unrelated

The recent looting in the UK’s major cities is a result of parts  of UK society (to which I belong) having lost its grip on the real world. Not only the looters, but parts of a society which has a  responsibility to provide leadership, guidance, wisdom, hope and a sense of right and wrong to the young  : parents, teachers, religious leaders,  police, judiciary, sociologists, local authority leaders, politicians, the government,  the media, entertainers, artists, the literati and the intelligentsia. 

 The time honoured rules for a stable, prosperous society have been at least partly abandoned or ridiculed or adherred to only for fear of being caught out: honesty, loyalty, prudence, humility and restraint from extremes of greed or sensuality. It has happened countless times to societies throughout human history, and learning to adhere to them seems to be a painfully slow process, not helped in recent years, I maintain, by a denial of their divine origin.

But some bankers, financial service workers, economists and ordinary citizens have also been looting – plundering the economy in the belief they can get something for nothing.

A recent posting concerned the US debt mountain; but the UK is in even greater debt  which does not seem to have registered with the media, possibly because it is small compared to the USA and the eurozone.  

Although the UK government’s annual deficit is ‘only’ 10% of GDP (gross domestic product, the total money a nation spends on goods and services, serving as a measure of economic activty), compared with the US’s 12%, the British people have amassed a staggering amount of private debt per person by taking on excessively high mortgages from financial institutions which have in turn borrowed the money from foreign institutions.

Private UK citizens and the UK government together owe $144.3 k per person
to foreign creditors.  UK citizens have been spending money on foreign goods and property with abandon and appear to be living in a fantasy world. Only Ireland has a higher foreign debt per capita: $505 k. 

 The corresponding total debt per person values for other countries are

USA $45.1 k, Germany $57.8 k , China $0.3 k,  Greece $47.6 k  Japan  $19.1 k .
The average for the European Union is $27.9 k.

Greece’s total debt per capita is similar to the USA’s. Its anuual budget deficit (12% of GDP) and  accumulated government deficit (100% of GDP) are also similar.  But Greece is in trouble now because its economy is small, it has a low productivity, its GDP is falling fast, its currency is not a reserve currency (like the dollar)  and it investors fear it will exit the eurozone, voluntarily or otherwise.

The UK is in trouble, and in the long term it could be in worse trouble, because its banks are unable to finance business expansion even with government rescue at tax payers’ expense and because the Bank of England is having to buy bonds with money it does not have (quantitative easing) to keep banks solvent, thereby risking inflation. With UK house owners in debt to banks which are in debt to foreign banks there is a huge burden of debt making it difficult to invest in new technology, new skills and a rejuvenated infrastrucuture.

Other countries are having economic problems, including China, and we are all interconnected, but when you lose contact with the real world it has a habit of catching up with you.

Peace cannot be founded on illusions. So let’s get real.

Feedback welcome.

John

Author, 2077 AD

cosmik.jo@gmail.com

Thursday, 4 August 2011

1984 revisited: here today? Some observations

See also

1984 revisited: collective post-modernism


In George Orwell’s book 1984 he depicts a totalitarian future (it was written in 1948) in which the Inner Party (2% of the population) governs for the sake of power alone and forces the Outer Party (13%) not only to submit, but to believe in, a reality dreamed up by the Party founders, who give themselves and their successors absolute power. Below the Outer Party are  the proles (short for proletariat, forming 85% of the population) and they are encouraged to be ignorant, absorbed in trivia or drunk, and are kept safely free of energy for revolt by exhausting them with work.

There are three areas: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, all similar in power structure and governance. Throughout history the ruling clique has always lost power due to either conquest by foreigners or revolt.

The three territories are too big to be conquerable and each has most of the natural resources it needs – something which does not apply today because of the relentless growth in consumption; nevertheless the economic power blocs can see that military invasion would not benefit any nation because it would destroy the multinational trading system on which wealth is based.  

So the only possible loss of power in Orwell’s world, and arguably even in the actual world, is from revolt; but in 1984 revolt is impossible because of various stratagems and methods. These are listed below along with notes which I believe show how Orwell had foreseen certain aspects of today’s capitalist parliamentary democracies of the West.

  • Restriction of thought.  Anybody in danger of proposing ideas outside the narrow, rigid framework imposed by the Inner Party is likely to be arrested and worked on by the Thought Police. Intellectual activity and creativity are also prevented by restricting the range of ideas and knowledge available. All history is written and rewritten by the Inner Party to suit its current requirements. Thankfully there is little evidence of this in the West but the same can’t be said of all parts of the world (e.g. Middle East, China, N. Korea). Even in the West there is an expectation of submission to the Market and fulfilment through material gain and status: anyone who thinks outside this matrix is often subject to  strong social pressure or marginalised.


  • Restriction of vocabulary and grammar of the Outer Party. The Inner Party restricts the vocabulary and grammar of the majority  to curtail precision, flexibility and creativity of thought and discussion (Newspeak) . Dumbing down is happening in some sectors of western society (e.g. universities), although hopefully this is not deliberately engineered by an oligarchy seeking to maintain power. Witness younger people talking, twittering and emailing and note how often such words as ‘like’, ‘thingy’ and those ending in ‘wise’ crop up in a loose, undisciplined pattern of street lingo where finding the a word with the precise shade of meaning is not considered important.


  • Stupefaction of the masses. The proles are kept exhausted by drudgery, diverted with trivia and befuddled with cheap gin made widely available. This prevents them becoming a threat (the Thought Police concentrate on the Inner Party rather than the proles, since the latter have few thoughts that could amount to a threat to the Inner Party's grip on power).  Today very strong pot is widely available, alcohol is increasingly bought and consumed by older children, TV soaps and talent shows have become addictive, most TV programs are presented in a manic or sensation-mongering style pandering to ever diminishing attention spans, a family has to work more hours to buy a house than 50 years ago, publicly funded education is under financial pressure and trade union power is continuing to decline. Formerly serious newspapers are peppered with sensational crime reports, celebrity gossip, entertainment news, competitions and anything to divert from serious discussion of ideas to upset the status quo. Am I paranoid?


  • Hate sessions. In 1984 the Inner Party invents fictional public enemies (e.g. propaganda about whoever the Inner Party says is the current enemy) and vilifies them on ‘telescreens’ in 2-minute hate sessions, presumably in the belief that everyone needs something or someone to hate. Our press sometimes seem to have favourite hate targets (e.g. bankers, Big Brother villains, certain politicians, especially evil criminals) and this may be taking peoples’ eye off the root causes of social injustice, which could lead to social unrest.


  • Conspiracy theories. Even the anti-hero of 1984 is fooled by the Inner Party into believing in an underground organisation, the Brotherhood, which is conspiring to topple the regime by revolt. Conspiracy theories today abound. E.g. there are those who believe all 6 Apollo missions were faked despite world media coverage (even by the Soviets) and many samples of lunar rock; the recently revived Flat Earth Society says the Earth is not really round -  it’s just been made to look that way by the authorities using digital image manipulation. How such theories originate is a mystery to me.  If it is from the holders of power it would be a good way of diverting attention from a genuine conspiracy to maintain power; if it is from the general population does it just mean it’s ‘cool’ to be cynical?.


  • Denial of an objective reality. The founders of the Inner Party which controls society don’t believe in an objective reality and so feel able to make one up and impose it on the world without any kind of fear of going against a natural or divine order. Scientific progress is halted. There are sectors of our society who seek to impose their own world view on the rest of us (possibly political correctness is an example), having first destroyed people’s faith in an objective reality. Science could lose its impetus if faith in an objective reality with an underlying order is destroyed.


  • Doublethink. Outer Party members are coerced into holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time, e.g. black is white, wrong is right. Certain sectors of society (including some scientists) deny that there is an objective reality. Hopefully, they will revise their view of the world before too much damage is done.


  • Big Brother ‘infallibility’. All news and opinions under the Big Brother label are infallible. If BB makes a mistake the evidence is removed from history. Deletion of emails by corporations.  Government leaders in totalitarian countries (e.g. China, North Korea).


  • Constant surveillance of the Outer Party by the Inner Party. Telescreens are everywhere and two-way. Closed circuit community TV? Use of Internet by governments and corporations to amass data on citizens.
We are a long way from the horrific world envisaged by Orwell writing in the shadow of Stalin but I have found it illuminating in trying to understand the reality of today's world.

John
Author, 2077 AD
 cosmik.jo@gmail.com