Thursday, 31 December 2015


Paul Eddington of Yes, Minister fame said the following a few days before his death in 1995: “A journalist once asked me what I would like my epitaph to be and I said I think I would like it to be ‘He did very little harm’. And that’s not easy. Most people seem to me to do a great deal of harm. If I could be remembered as having done very little, that would suit me.”


If you ask me on any day what I would like to do the next day, I’ll be able to mention a few things. What I will not say is that I am just going to wake up and wait and see what happens, because I don’t want to plan anything and then it doesn’t work out.

The same thing applies to the last day of an “old” year and the first day of a “new” year. Some people are of the opinion that you shouldn’t have too many plans, or set too many goals or recite too many fixed dates. This is what I think: I am grateful that I am still here, and if I am still here tomorrow, I am not going to waste my time. I will get busy with things that I want to do, and if things don’t work out as I hope between Friday, 1 January 2016 and Saturday, 31 December 2016, I will accept that.


Routine check of my beliefs


Ask yourself whether you’ll still do X, or worry about what Y thinks of you, if you knew you won’t be alive in five years’ time. Then ask the same question about three years, two years, one year …

* * *

Every now and then I have to do a quick check for what I believe in.

Answer: I believe in reason, and being reasonable. And I believe in Civilisation. I believe that people can get along better with each other, and that more people will be able to lead happier lives and perhaps get more done with their lives if more people worked together.

This most recent spot check was done on the sidewalk near a busy intersection in Kaohsiung as I was walking back from where I buy dinner on Wednesday evenings. For the umpteenth time in recent weeks I saw how motorists kept driving even though they could see they were going to get caught by the red light. Of course they ended up, along with a dozen or more other vehicles in the middle of the intersection when the traffic had to start moving in the other direction – and when pedestrians had to start crossing the road.

“Imagine what the world will be like if people are more reasonable,” I murmured in the direction of a motorist who, as could be expected, sat there as stiff as a zombie, looking straight ahead.


Arguments on the left side of the spectrum


What’s up with all these liberals attacking each other on social media, on talk shows and in articles on the internet?

In case you haven’t been following the action, here are a few samples:

Sam Harris & Noam Chomsky

The Limits of Discourse – As Demonstrated by Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky

Scoring the Noam Chomsky/Sam Harris debate: How the professor knocked out the atheist

Sam Harris & Glenn Greenwald

Sam Harris vs. Glenn Greenwald on Islam

Christopher Hitchens & Noam Chomsky

A Rejoinder to Noam Chomsky

Reply to Hitchens

Ben Affleck & Bill Maher, Sam Harris

Real Time with Bill Maher: Ben Affleck, Sam Harris and Bill Maher Debate Radical Islam (HBO)

Can Liberalism Be Saved From Itself?


How do you know what is true?


How can you believe anything if you cannot verify for yourself whether something is true or not?

Fact is, I have to believe other people when they say or write that Napoleon lived, and had lost his final battle at a place called Waterloo. I have to believe other people when they say or write of a monster who went by the name of Adolf Hitler. I have to believe other people when they say or write that there was a conservative old geezer called Paul Kruger, and other men called George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Henry VIII. I have to accept other people’s arguments or proofs that the earth is round and not flat, that the earth revolves around the sun, that there is an ever-expanding universe, that humans descended from earlier creatures that looked more like chimpanzees than modern humans, and even that I consist of tiny particles called atoms – which in turn consist of even smaller particles.

So, how do you believe anything if you cannot collect data yourself, scrutinise historical sources, and do your own sophisticated laboratory experiments?

You listen to two or more explanations for something that differ on all the main points. You listen to people who represent different viewpoints, and you look carefully at what they submit as evidence. Then you listen to how they insult each other, how they deconstruct each other’s arguments, and how they construct counterarguments layer by layer.

Then you decide: Which version sounds more reasonable? How thoroughly has evidence been examined and on what grounds were evidence rejected and arguments refuted? Which version has a higher probability of being true?

Finally, when you have decided on A, or B or however many options there are, you have to ask yourself why you think that specific version sounds more reasonable, and has a higher probability of being true. Very important: Is it possible that you have a deep-seated need for that version to be the truth? Also, do you choose one version over another because your membership in some or other group is at risk, especially where membership is something that gives value and meaning to your life?

Someone who accepts a particular explanation because they need it to be the truth is like a judge who convicts a man of theft because another man had stolen something from him a long time ago, and ever since he has been carrying around this desire for revenge. What this person needs is one thing; evidence that the guy is guilty is something completely different.

* * *

Just for fun, here are a few issues about which people argue until they are blue in the face.

1. Is evolution one of the most important discoveries ever made about life on earth, or is it nonsense?

Read and decide for yourself:

15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense

12 Arguments Evolutionists Should Avoid

The Scientific Case Against Evolution

How To Argue For Evolution: 7 Common Creationist Arguments, Debunked

Objections to evolution

2. Was John F. Kennedy assassinated by a single sniper named Lee Harvey Oswald, or was there a larger conspiracy behind the assassination?

Read and decide for yourself:

John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories

What is the Case Against a Conspiracy in the JFK Assassination?

What is the Case For a Conspiracy in the JFK Assassination?

3. Was the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan a bastion of freedom and democracy, or was he a bully who destroyed more than he built?

Read and decide for yourself:

Not Even a Hedgehog: The stupidity of Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan: Impact And Legacy

Five myths about Ronald Reagan’s legacy

The Sad Legacy of Ronald Reagan

4. Was Mother Teresa a hope for the poorest of the poor, or was she a “fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”?

Read, or watch, and decide for yourself:

20 Facts About Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Christopher Hitchens – Mother Teresa: Hell’s Angel

Mother Teresa: Why the Catholic missionary is still no saint to her critics


The real or not real purpose of our existence


Stir up the topic of the possibility of a purpose to human existence, and you necessarily bring up the origin of the human being.

I reckon there are three possibilities: humans were created by a deity; humans were slowly evolving from earlier life forms, then beings from outer space arrived and injected their DNA in an earlier incarnation of what would eventually become modern humans; humans evolved slowly over millions of years from earlier life forms into the organisms we see today, with no interference from cosmic deities or aliens from outer space.

Each of these possible origins has unique implications for the possibility of a purpose to our existence.

If a deity created humans, it makes sense that we should start our search for the purpose of our existence with this deity: Who is this deity? What does this deity want from us? Why did the deity create us? What will happen if we do not do what we ought to do, or if we fail for various reasons to figure out what we ought to do?

If what we are today is the result of interference from beings from outer space, the questions are similar: Who are they? Where did they come from? Why did they come all this way to interfere with our biological ancestors? What are we supposed to do? What will happen if we fail to do what we have to do, or if we can’t figure out what they want us to do?

If we have developed slowly over millions of years, and if perhaps as many as hundreds but probably at least dozens of different incarnations passed before we came to be the organism we call Homo sapiens today, we cannot reasonably look for something beyond ourselves that had a plan or purpose in mind for us a long time ago.

If we owe our existence to the latter process – a highly probable yet strangely enough highly controversial possibility, we can make a reasonable conclusion. It would mean “purpose of existence”, like identity, is something we came up with to help us get through the proverbial day. In other words, it isn’t really real.

Important to note that something does not have to be actually real to have practical value. Identity is one example: I am not really “Brand Smit”. Or, “Brand Smit” is not a real thing like a dog or an elephant or a pencil. It is something that was originally devised by my parents, and then I contributed a little, and others lent a hand, and when I became older I got a little more creative with it, and nowadays other people sometimes play along with what I say, and sometimes they don’t. But “Brand Smit” does have practical value. Not only does it help the author of this text to get through his day and get along fairly well with other organisms and creatures in his environment, it may even motivate him to sacrifice some of his time and money to assist other people and animals.

Most of the people who will benefit from his selfless actions won’t care too much how he thinks about the purpose of his existence. For example, he can start a soup kitchen to feed hungry people sleeping at the train station, and I reckon they won’t grumble too much if the helper declares that he is doing so because he sees it as the purpose of his existence as revealed by beings from outer space.

* * *

There is a good chance that both identity and belief that our existence serves a purpose are things we invented ourselves. It is also true that some of us view these things as if they are holy truth that cannot be altered to any significant extent.

Is it good to think your existence serves a purpose?

I have mentioned the example of someone providing hot soup and bread to hungry people without compensation and at no cost to the person who gets the soup and bread, possibly because he or she believes it expresses the purpose of their existence.

Then there is the guy who does not believe his existence serves any purpose; that he was born and that he will eventually die, and in between he will do his best to get along with his neighbours, stay out of trouble most of the time, and make his life as much worth the effort as he can manage, since he can easily enough end his own life.

Personally, I have no problem with someone who doesn’t believe their existence serves a purpose. And if the person at the soup kitchen says she is a creature of extraterrestrial origin who is simply doing what she was commanded to do, I won’t have a problem with her either – as long as the soup and bread are of a quality that can sustain ordinary earthlings throughout the day.

On the other end of the spectrum I will certainly mind if someone wants to cut off my head because they say ancient writings instruct them to do so, that it is indeed part of the purpose of their existence as revealed by this ancient text.

The belief that your existence serves a purpose is, like identity, not inherently good or bad. Both can help you get through the day in one piece and in reasonably good shape, and not end up in prison or a mental institution. Both can also make your path to the prison or mental institution remarkably short and straight. And both can enable you to live in relative peace with most members of the community, or it can set you on a warpath with them or with members of other communities.

Who are you, at the end of the day? And do you believe your existence serves a purpose? If you do, what is this purpose, and from where did you get the idea that this ought to be the purpose of your life?