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I found this:

This man is charismatic, humble and self-effacing. I think I like him.

I wish I could explain to him why he’s wrong about me.

It’s so interesting to see how our society has twisted and distorted the idea of education, so that almost everyone has the wrong idea. Education isn’t about gathering the collected wisdom of the world. Rather, education is about learning to create new knowledge. The best method we humans have found for this is the invention of good explanations through conjecture, criticism, and testing. Because the potential for creation is infinite, we are not in fact 5% of the way there, nor 1%, nor even 0.0001% along the path to knowing everything. We are, in fact, infinitely far away from complete knowledge. And we always will be. There is an infinite amount of knowledge of which I am ignorant.

And yet I am an atheist. How can I possibly say “there is no god”? I can’t, and in fact that’s not what I say. Instead, I say that supernatural explanations are always bad explanations, because they are infinitely variable. They don’t help me get closer to truth, because there is no conceivable way in which such explanations can deal with reality. If supernatural explanations do, in fact, intersect with reality, they cease to be supernatural explanations. I can’t study supernatural explanations, subject them to criticism, test them, improve them. This is what makes them bad explanations.

So I don’t fit the gentleman’s definition of an atheist. I also don’t fit his definition of an agnostic. I very much care if there is a God who acts in the world, because such a God would be part of the universe, and I want to understand the universe through good explanations. Supernatural explanations don’t get me there.

But, you say, what if that’s really the way the world is? What if the supernatural really does affect the world? Won’t your method just miss it? Won’t you be like the scientists of the late 1700s who insisted that rocks cannot fall from the sky?

Here’s the thing: everything is real. If something is not real, it’s not a thing. Only because things like consciousness and intuition are so complex do they remain shrouded in the sort of mystery that allows us to talk ourselves into the idea that something fishy is going on. But think about it. Thoughts are real. We’ve seen them (go to 9:00 in the video).

If a thought of God somehow appears in your mind, that thought came from somewhere. It created an effect, and we know that every effect has a demonstrable cause. Trace back the cause far enough, and you’ve found the source of that effect. If at some point you find a way for the supernatural to effect the real, then you’ve discovered new physics – and in the process turned God into a legitimate subject for scientific study.

So, does God exist? If He does, then He’s part of this universe, and we can study Him. And maybe even take away the annoying capital letters. Theology then would become a branch of the physical sciences. How does God do it? Surely not radio waves, for any old receiver should pick those up. Is there some new signalling medium, so far unknown to science, used to communicate directly to human brains? If so, let’s find it!

So in one sense the speaker is right. I am a seeker. But I will seek, always, to understand the world through good explanations. I’m not an atheist because I know everything. I’m an atheist because I’m at the beginning of infinity – and always will be.

Democrat Barack Obama has won reelection over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, yet the Republicans have retained control of the House. This status quo at a time when the country must move forward will force both major parties to change. Where will these changes leave me?

To the Republicans:

You can win me. I want economic growth. I want progress. I’m not convinced that trickle down economics is the path to growth, but maybe I’m wrong. Make an argument and onvince me. I’m listening.

But in order to win me you’ll have to change. Give up your opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Stop trying to tell people how to live – it’s none of your business.

Give up this crazy dedication to the NRA. Semi-automatic weapons designed to kill lots of people at once are not legitimate objects of trade, any more than grenades or bazookas are.

Give up this insistence on no tax increases ever on anyone. It’s dogma, not policy. Taxes should adjust to situations as needed.

Give up this crazy war on science. Stop calling scientists liars when they come up with a finding you don’t like. Climate change is happening, and people are causing it. What we do about it, that’s the debate. Changing the debate into a rebuke of scientists damages the standing of science in our society, and that’s the opposite of what we need to grow and progress.

While we’re on the subject of science, evolution is a fact, and needs to be taught as such in public schools. And speaking of schools, public schools could be a lot better, but your mindless testing makes them worse. Your vouchers are a thinly-veiled attempt to funnel tax money to religious institutions, which run most of the private schools you tout. So stop that. Public school is for everyone, and vouchers sap them of their strength.

Stop opposing reasonable health care reform. While I believe in the free enterprise system, there are real concerns about the ability of private insurers to provide everyone with proper care. We’ve already decided that we won’t live in the sort of society that lets people die in the street; now we need to find a way to pay for our decision.

More than anything else, don’t ever again institute voting rules designed to suppress the votes of those unlikely to support you. Everyone deserves a voice, even if that voice is opposed to yours. Voter suppression can never, ever be part of American politics.

Finally, stop talking about religion. Fine, you believe in God. You also live most your life and as if God didn’t exist, and that is as it must be. No one wants a mechanic who claims a car’s troubles are due to gremlins or invisible dragon fire. Worship your God if you must, but keep your beliefs out of public policy, just as you keep them out of car repair.

To the Democrats:

You can keep me. I believe in Democratic ideals. I believe that a strong, growing, progressing economy in the modern world benefits from a government/business partnership. I also believe that consumers need more money in their pockets, and producers should vie for that money rather than having it handed to them in tax cuts. I may be wrong about that, and maybe the Republicans can prove it to me. For now, I’m with you. But to keep me, you’ll need to change, too.

Stop supporting teachers’ unions at all costs. Bad teachers need to go. And there are lots of bad teachers out there. A profession that gets so little respect is bound to attract them. Teachers need to get more respect, and they need to prove they deserve it.

Stop supporting crazy environmental ideas that discourage, growth. Yes, climate change is real and is caused by people. The question is not how to prevent climate change. The question is how to survive and thrive on a changing planet. If we give up our economic engine to return to a simpler time, the next great calamity (maybe a super volcano, an impact from space, or even something as mundane as a famine) will be all the more disastrous because we will have stymied our ability to react.

Stop opposing nuclear energy. Fossil fuels are here for a very long time, but nuclear is a viable alternative if you would only let the technology evolve. Nuclear fission, and someday perhaps even nuclear fusion, can be the energy that powers our advance on this planet and beyond. Stop attacking it for political gain.

Stop opposing any sort of tort reform. Protecting consumers is laudable, but it has gone too far. Doctors are treated alternately as gods and criminals by our legal system. This is just silly. Doctors are humans trying to do their best, just like the rest of us. Similarly, an army of lawyers follow around entrepreneurs, hoping for something to go wrong. This stifles growth and prosperity

Avoid moral relativism. There are things that are right and things that are wrong, and we should have the courage to say what they are. There are enemies to our way of life; don’t be afraid to call them our enemies. Some of those enemies are religious fanatics, but not all fanatics are religious.

Genetically modified foods are a boon to civilization. Support them, don’t block them. Oil shales, clean coal, and proven oil reserves are all paths to prosperity. Insist on high standards for using these resources, but don’t limit our growth by making them off limits. Pesticides, medical testing, and cell phones have all been attacked by the ignorant. Don’t be swayed by these uninformed fearmongers.

We must not retreat from progress. Energy efficiency is fine, but only because it lets us use more energy. Energy is what we need to learn more, to explore more, to create more, to be more than we are. The past was never as good as the present, and the present is nothing compared to the future we can choose to build. We don’t consume too much. We produce too little – and we always will. We must never stop striving to be more than we are.


Here’s the crazy thing about my two lists. Both parties could do as I suggest and meet in the middle, with the Republicans perhaps ending up more fiscally conservative, the Democrats more fiscally liberal. At that point we could make a real choice between two parties who each agree that the goal is prosperity. The only question is how to get there.


Matt Ridley is best known for his popular science books, including the excellent The Red Queen. As he says in the introduction to The Rational Optimist,

In the past two decades I have written four books about how similar humans are to other animals. This book is about how different they are from other animals.

How are we different? Ridley makes the point that we humans alive today are the ultimate specialists in production, the ultimate generalists in consumption. We earn our living by doing one thing and selling that thing, whatever it may be, to others who find it valuable. With our payment for that one thing, we choose from an enormous variety of goods and services to consume ourselves. And, the main thesis of Ridley’s book, is that this trend is accelerating through time, with startling results. For instance, comparing an average modern mother to Louis XIV in Paris in 1700:

You are far from poor, but in relative terms you are immeasurably poorer that Louis was. Where he was the richest of the rich in the world’s richest city, you have no servants, no palace, no carriage, no kingdom. As you toil home from work on the crowded Metro, stopping at the shop on the way to buy a ready meal for four, you might be thinking that Louis XIV’s dining arrangements were way beyond your reach. And yet consider this. The cornucopia that greets you as you enter the supermarket dwarfs anything that Louis XIV ever experienced. (p 37)

Ridley then describes the huge assortment of meats, vegetables, and grains available in the market, and the huge variety of styles in which they might be prepared for you. The same is true of clothing, travel, heating and cooling, lighting, communication, medicine, news, and entertainment. The net effect is that you have far more servants than Louis XIV ever dreamed of housing. Certainly these servants work for many others as well as you, but what difference does that make? They are there whenever you need them.

How did we reach this level of wealth? Ridley says we got there through trade, which he describes as the engine of innovation. In the same way that biological evolution was sped up immensely by the invention of sex, cultural evolution accelerates when ideas have sex, when they are able to combine in new and innovative ways. “The telephone,” Ridley says in a typical example, “had sex with the computer and spawned the internet.” (p 223)

There are many things to like in Ridley’s book. Like Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature, Ridley recognizes that nostalgia for the past is misplaced. Life today is safer, more interesting, and healthier than ever before. Pessimists have always gotten more attention than optimists, and yet the optimists have almost always been right in the end. As Deutsch points out, innovation and progress are the only way to avoid disaster. The best insurance against disaster is prosperity to fuel that innovation.

Ridley is a bit libertarian for my tastes. While monarchical and tyrannical governments of the past were undoubtedly parasites upon their innovators, I have to believe that modern, democratically-elected governments have at least a chance to foster rather than stifle innovation. I think of all the scientific achievements sponsored by government, including Voyager I and II and other deep space probes, the HMS Challenger and of course Darwin’s Beagle expedition, and the Large Hadron Collider. One might argue that these are pure science discoveries, unlikely to lead to innovation in any direct way. That’s true in the short run, but in the long term it’s unquestionable that the scientific discoveries of today provide the raw material for the innovations of the future. Even Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction seemed useless at the time, but there’s hardly a technology today involving any sort of motion that doesn’t incorporate Faraday’s great finding somewhere. What raw material will innovators of the future apply? We can’t know, of course, but it’s a good bet that it will involve scientific discoveries yet to be made. (And even Ridley says, “Government can do good, after all” (p 285)  in his final chapter, when describing the creation of roads, canals, schools, and hospitals. I would add libraries and of course museums to that list. And the LHC.)

The biggest message to take from Ridley’s book, like Deutsch’s and Pinker’s before it, is that the future is ours to create. Standing still is not an option, and there’s no reason to do so. As Deutsch wrote in The Beginning of Infinity, any physical transformation not prohibited by the laws of physics is possible. All we need is to know how.

Ridley finishes by acknowledging the misery alive and well in the world today, and stressing that the only way out of that misery is the way forward, not the way back. It was precisely that misery that once convinced me that the world is a terrible, immoral place. Now I know better. Misery is not a by-product of our technology; instead, it is a sign that there is still work to be done. “The twenty-first century,” Ridley says, “will be a magnificent time to be alive. Dare to be an optimist.” I couldn’t agree more.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
November 2012
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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