Apr 06

Atheist Myths!

Krista Sullivan

Atheism! The word used to stick in my throat until I eventually realised that really, there is little that is more honorable than to cast aside all superstition and rely on oneself for good moral behavior.

You can hardly blame me. Thinking back, when as a young kid, I asked an adult what the word meant, I was told, and I remember the exact words, "atheists believe in nothing, they have no God and so they value nothing". Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 06

Religious Taboos

Godfrey Vella

 

taboo1

Certain taboos appear to have been created to protect society’s very existence.  A society will fight back against anything that threatens its survival.  And what threatens a society more than attitudes or activities which reduce the capability of a society to regenerate itself?  The biggest threat that a society can possibly face is extinction.  It is therefore to be expected that a society could  look very unfavourably at practices that put at risk it's reproductive fitness. Homosexuality, abortion, adultery and contraception can be seen as such practices.  It is hence not surprising that traditional societies have erected strict prohibitions - taboos - against these non-reproductive sexual practices.  The snag is that we have inherited these taboos in an age when they no longer make any sense.

We must bear in mind that in primitive societies where infant mortality was high, life expectancy was low and there was a huge dependency on manual labour, the pressure to reproduce was very strong.  Societies with lower birth rates faced extinction.  Therefore it is not surprising that practices such as homosexuality, abortion and contraception were frowned upon and very actively discouraged. Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 06

Freedom of Thought and Speech

Ramon Casha

 

brain

In 1616 the Roman Inquisition ordered Galileo Galilei to abandon his claim that the earth orbited the sun - not to think it or teach it. 330 years later, many countries came together to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most important documents in existence today, and in it, Article 18 states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Article 19 adds “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 06

Focus on Ethics

Krista Sullivan

 

ethics-and-compliance

Professor Kenneth Wain is the brains behind the Ethics program being introduced in state schools this scholastic year. I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of his acquaintance this week and to talk to him about the program.

Professor Wain explained that the Ethics Program aims to create a classroom which is a "moral community and a community of enquiry, in other words a community which learns together, what we want from Ethics Studies is an education in values”. I thought this was a beautiful statement and goal. I was very happy about the introduction of this subject from the word go but I am even more thrilled now that I have a better understanding of what it's all about.

Skills involving communicating, discussing, talking and listening are at the core of this programme.  That to me seems like a good thing because just one look at our local TV channels and social media is living proof of how much all this is needed.  It is true that part of our Maltese charm is our passion but it rings sorely true that we need to start enjoying/developing the skills of listening and expressing our viewpoint calmly. And it is also quite  obvious that we need to stop disliking someone simply because aspects of their belief system do not coincide with ours.

The main focus of the Ethics programme for schools is creating a mindset of harmony within our increasingly pluralistic society. This is not limited to issues in our immediate surroundings but also towards other issues such as lifestyle choices and civic freedoms which might not even affect us directly.  There are issues which divide us as a people, emotional issues as well as intellectual disagreement and we need to learn not only to tolerate but rather to understand and hopefully even appreciate the reality of a varied society.  The skill of discussing and listening is vital if we are to progress as a nation and as individuals and that includes giving space and listening to the talker, and in not being too forceful or aggressive when voicing our own point of view.  In Professor Wain's own words; “The problem in our contemporary society is that very often the differences between people, how they value certain things combined with how passionate they feel about them turns a discussion into an angry confrontation.  It becomes a matter of people talking at each other rather than people conversing.  A crucial part of this programme is to introduce a culture in the classroom whereby the children regard themselves as belonging to a community of enquiry and discussion. When they are there in the class, they don’t just happen to be there but they form part of a community, they share values together, values we see in the class, the school and in life.”

 

The course is to a certain extent an anti-indoctrination program. It does not teach absolute truths without question; quite the contrary - it recognises that it is time to allow people to think for themselves and to come to their own conclusions intelligently.  Those conclusions, whatever they may be, must be respected.  Religious beliefs will be presented not as singular truths but as philosophies one may wish to believe in or not.  It is important that children, and adults for that matter, to learn to understand what they are subscribing to, what their friends subscribe to and to and how they wish to live their lives within the understandings of that which upholds a functioning, peaceful society.  Children will learn to base their opinion on their own intellectual and emotional findings about a variety of social issues which will be explored collectively and holistically in class.

Respect and knowledge of other cultures, not only abroad but also in different Maltese families and communities, is important and a very strong focus of the programme.  The understanding of people's different ways will allow all to live in harmony within our diverse community and maybe, through intelligent methods of enquiry, they will hopefully learn to live together with their differences.  Values may be experienced differently in real life - “Do not kill” may clearly apply to your neighbor but how does it apply to a war enemy or to animals? How do we distinguish between right and wrong?

Very young children will learn to question what they are taught.  The very beginning or basis of the programme is “who am I, and what is my role in life”?  First in the context of the family, then in the context of the class, the school and the world at large. We start off by socialising children into certain values which we have common agreement with; honesty, truth, respect for others. In later years young people will learn reason and rationality, they will discuss amongst other things hard realities such as war, bioethics, euthanasia and more.  Issues which, if people are not well informed about can cause distress, conflict and repression of others' rights.  If we truly want  to lead a good life, we must include those who we do not come across every day, and furthermore other people's wellbeing should be as important as our own explained Wain.

“The world has become more ethical than has ever been the case in the past. Even because traditional points of reference are slowly being lost and we are coming to depend on our own resources to live in a harmonious and respectful way.”  At the end of the day we want people to depend on themselves for correct behavior, but we need to move away from teaching moral truths which have no alternatives.  People should have society’s support to live as they please in a morally correct framework.  Professor Wain is aware that some topics will be controversial; some truths will be challenged but hopefully in a healthy, intelligent way so that the students acquire their understanding of right and wrong in a deep and integrated manner.  Of course certain truths are universal and accepted by all.  Everybody in our society appreciates democracy, freedom of speech and lifestyle freedom.  We however want citizens who use their freedoms responsibly and who will navigate the reality of our pluralistic society respectfully and reasonably.

The studies will include a knowledge of cultures far and wide, leaving them with a firm understanding of how other people think, what they find offensive and what is a show of respect. One simple example is that in Thailand people find it offensive to point at objects with their feet whereas we don’t blink an eye at such practices.

This is an ambitious project that Professor Wain has devoted a lot of time to.  He is creating the syllabus from scratch as there is no international model Malta can copy.  His team and involved lecturers put together the lessons he outlines in the syllabus and they meet regularly to discuss progress which he has every intention of continuing to do during the coming scholastic years. "This will be a living, growing approach to teaching which I hope to see extended to all sectors of education".

Professor Kenneth Wain is a major Maltese philosopher and educator. His areas of specialisation in philosophy are chiefly education, ethics and political philosophy. He was also appointed Dean of the Faculty of Education at Malta’s university. Apart from playing a leading role in Malta’s national educational policy development, and in the setting of the national curriculum, he continued to contribute actively in the field as chairman of the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools, and of the Foundation for Educational Services. Wain is also a board member of the International Network of Philosophers of Education. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Wain
He has recently launched his festschrift entitled My Teaching, My Philosophy.


Apr 06

Toys for all the good boys and girls

Tura Satana

It is the time of year again when we celebrate the most important holiday of the religion that most defines ‘the West,’ meaning Europe and North America. This religion is of course Rampant Consumerism. In Malta the grip of it is perhaps somewhat less, there being a strong competing religion:  in UK for example, every year people are inundated with speculation of how good will the event be for retail, and subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that if you don’t buy loads of crap you cannot afford and that the recipient doesn’t want, the economy will crash. Then life as we know it will end, and the next Xmas will be spent scavenging for scraps amongst the ruins and battling mutants with home-made weaponry. Buy a new toaster, or start weaponising the one you have now, citizens!

Toys are a prime object to buy, and Rampant Consumerism dictates every child must have many or happiness is not achievable. Toys are a perfect tool to teach children the tenets of the religion, and also hard to resist: who wants to disappoint children? Adults are already hardened by life and expect disappointment, but the little ones still believe that Santa will bring them toys (since the adults have told them so). So off we go to buy suitable plastic objects for our loved ones, and the brats of relatives we feel obliged to give something to.

This is all really prompted by a suitable toy I saw for sale, hanging outside a shop in Valletta: a set of child-sized cleaning implements, a broom, a dustpan and a brush, all pink of course. They must have felt it was a star buy, since it had such a prominent display spot. Pink, of course, is a message that clearly demarcates the said toy to be for girls only, I hope I do not have to somehow justify the statement: any doubters can go to the nearest shop for children’s clothes and ask for pink anything for a boy. A toy catalogue I have seen even had the pages for “girls’ toys” edged in pink as a warning sign. Here be girly things! Stay away!


People who oppose criticism of pop-culture on any gender grounds, will always claim that sensible people are not affected by what they see on the screen, which would make advertising the biggest scam in the world – but everyone sort of agrees that children are impressionable, and accept for example age restrictions on movies and games. So what are toys for? Amusement? Yes, but hardly only that. You could ask what is playing for, and most psychologists and biologists too (young animals also play) would say that it is practise for adult skills. Much of it is just to develop basic motor skills, but at the same time other skills are learnt, such as social skills and specific skills. Like cleaning. Toys must have some significance, since like music and dance, they are found in every culture everywhere and throughout history. One of the oldest toys that has survived is a wooden crocodile that opens and closes its mouth, made by someone in Ancient Egypt many thousands of years ago. We can guess the maker mostly wanted to amuse a little child, likely his own, but surely some information was passed on as well. Look, child, this is a crocodile. Look what big maw it has. Don’t be eaten by one. Remember it is a holy animal. Religion and life skills are passed on in one package.

 

I was having the ‘we were happier than kids today with much less material goods’ discussion the other day, which is also obligatory ritual at this time of year. Thinking back, I was rarely disappointed at Xmas time. My relatives were all completely hopeless at picking presents, so my expectations were extremely low: when my uncle one year presented me with a bag of raisins, I thought, ‘Yum, raisins!’ and ate them. I do think I would have been disappointed by a pink plastic coffee maker though, which probably takes the prize for most pointless toy I have seen. At least the cleaning set presents some activity, the coffee maker just sits there and pretends to make coffee. It’s hardly surprising if the tots demand more toys, being bored with the ones they have, when each toy only really has one function: this of course suits Rampant Consumerism to a T. Something generic, such as building blocks, you can give a baby who will enjoy stuffing them in her mouth and drooling. Same blocks, unless chewed unrecognisable, will still be in use five years later to build a fantasy castle or a rocket launch site or whatever happens to be the interest of the day. Making toys that last for years is not a good strategy for a company that needs to sell more and more: like anything, toys that become obsolete or break and need to be replaced are more of a money-spinner. Same goes for toys that cannot be shared. Lego seems to have grasped this well: original ones were designed merely to inflict the maximum amount of pain without breaking the skin if you step on them*, but you could also build anything you liked from them, break them up and build something else. Now almost all Legos are model sets, you put it together and then buy another set. This also mean that they are mostly toys for one child only, you can help someone build a model, having three kids build one together would not work – unlike in their old packaging and advertisements that almost always showed a group of kids building something together. Lego also decided at some point girls were not going to play with them – removing all females from their ads, and then making separate pink sets for girls. These do not even fit with the standard blocks.

 

Lego is not in any way alone, there seems to be less and less of the generic children’s toys and more girls’ toys and boys’ toys, across the industry. This is not to say Lego still doesn’t make the best toys – at least according to us, the consumers. Lego recently surpassed Mattel as the biggest toy company in the world, and what can be said of the company that has Barbie as their flagship?

Mattel is not as recognisable as Lego as a brand, since they operate through several. Let’s see what other brands they have besides Barbie: American Girl, Little Mommy, BoomCo and Max Steel, among many game and movie tie-ins. Say no more? Difference is that Mattel has always been connected with these gender specific toys, like the girly dolls, while Lego was not. I will for now not talk of Barbie, since I think so much has already been written of the ubiquitous mini-woman. Still, it could be noted that before Barbie, the first successful toy they made in the late 40’s was a toy ukulele, something you could present to a boy or a girl. If you own earplugs or are completely tone-deaf, of course. So progress has happened, but in a surprising direction.

 

The more you can narrow down your toys to certain group, by age and gender, the more toys can be sold. The next step is probably racial profiling. It is not like these companies have some hidden agenda necessarily, except Lego’s secret foot-torture one*, they just like the parents’ money. You could argue that toys merely reflect reality; I have heard it said that girls naturally like pink, as if that was somehow genetic – even though pink=girly is a recent invention, from the 1920’s or so. Blue used to be girly, and red male, since red is an active colour and blue more calm and passive. It may be possible all children like pink: a nice, bright, happy colour, and it is merely boys are trained to dislike it. Whatever, it’s just a colour, it is the way it is used as gender demarcation line that is sort of skewy.

 

So, looking at toy advertisements and toys themselves, do they just reflect reality?

Firstly, there is almost never girls and boys playing together in TV ads or pictures on packaging, which seems odd. I don’t remember it like that from my childhood, and surely if you do not segregate siblings by their sex even today? Girls do often play with other girls, and boys with boys, but it can’t be that exclusive. Secondly, a lot of play involves imitating some sort of adult activity, like various jobs and home life (also bullying, gossip and back-stabbing at the playground trains you for office politics later on). Girls often ‘play home’. So, let’s imagine an alien or an amnesia victim, who has to learn about human life solely based on the Mega-Bumper-Monster-Toy-Catalogue. Apparently the society mostly consists or stay at home mums who are really hot, possibly have hobbies like ballet and take care of ponies; meanwhile men drive fast cars to the nearest war. Very few people have jobs other than police, pirate, race-car driver, cake-shop keeper and pet groomer. Women use inordinate amounts of time on grooming and make-up, but men and women rarely ever spend any time in the same space, never mind interact, yet there exists quite a lot of  babies. Reality? Not so much. Besides dads with their kids, male nurses and policewomen, I have even seen women drive cars that are not pink convertibles!

Well, given the choice between shooting or dancing with my pink pony at home, I know which I would choose, if it was real life. Bullets hurt and kill, so give me a pony and picket fence any day, despite the copious amounts of pony dung that has to be dealt with. Boys are not really served better by this selection of stereotypes: it is still less acceptable for a boy to act like a girl, than the other way round.  Girls are also trained for some things resembling real life. You will probably take care of children and make coffee at some point, whatever your gender, while boys are told to aspire for things that are alien to life: combat, death, space, machines and robots. Girls are meant to be nurturing, boys are not, which is not natural; most boys might not play with dolls, but how many boys would not want a puppy? Girls can break out of their pink-fenced compound, they can like maths and building things, and be praised for it. Girls are not expected to show aggression, but they can take up martial arts without much fuss. Boys cannot really expect any encouragement if they want to play princesses at a tea party.

Since it is a time to be jolly, fa-la-la-laa, and children need to be placated with gifts or jolly will not be had (and remember, smoking ruins, mutants, starvation and possibly Terminators – you were warned) at least pick something fun and functional, or something that takes at least until New Year to dismantle. Maybe some art supplies. Or could be some books, or does it even need to be an object? Give them a trip to the aquarium or movies or similar. If you go with a puppy, remember it is not just for Xmas!

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* Call me a conspiracy nut, but I am firmly convinced that Lego has the research locked in a vault, somewhere only the CEO and two trusted adjutants have access to.

Apr 06

The Madness of Certainty

Meinrad Calleja

There is a fine line between doubting and certainty that actually delineates where perceived madness sets in or is kept out. Certainty provides a reassuring border that allows us to transact our lives without having to doubt everything. However, doubting whether we locked our door or put the gas off, and doubting the beliefs in the core values or principles of our moral codes or legal systems are not equivalent forms of doubt. The former entails an unreasonable loss of certainty; the latter, challenging our convictions.

Informal (or logical) fallacies are described by The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy as errors in reasoning that can be used to persuade someone with whom you are reasoning that your argument is correct when it really is not. There are various types, the most common of which have been codified under about thirty rubrics since Aristotle. The most common appear to be argumentum ad populum, ad hominem, ad misericordum, ad baculum, consensus genitus, ad verecundiam and, perhaps, ad ignoratiam. The common denominator appears to be the predisposition of those being addressed to accepting these arguments and find them appealing. We arrive at certainty by incremental deduction and induction by a reasoning process we call ‘logic’ that is really quite mechanistic. While many informal fallacies can easily be identified, others elude even the most vigilant of people. Appeals to emotions or subjectivity are discernible, while appeals to science or rationality are more difficult to note.

The very fact that arguments can be construed to appeal to specific predispositions or structures infers that the ‘truth status’ of statements is dependent on what appears “plausible”, and thus any such correspondence could appear as ‘truth’ or ‘certainty’ when it really is not. Our structuring of plausibility greatly determines what we accept as ‘truth’ via the process of “plausibility”. What we believe to be ‘logic’ is a process subject to various values and beliefs we are initiated into via socialisation and culture. We then look at an argument or proposition and examine its plausibility accordingly, making various correlations.

How is plausibility structured? How do we structure our assumed ‘rationality’? What exactly is ‘logic’? What is ‘common sense’?   Fromm makes it quite clear that ‘the grave danger to the future of man is largely due to his incapacity to recognise the fictitious character of his ‘common sense’. The majority remain fixed to outworn and unrealistic categories and content of thinking; they consider their ‘common sense’ to be reason.’[i] So, according to Fromm ‘common sense’ consists of ‘outworn and unrealistic categories and content of thinking’.  We draw upon categories and modes of thinking that appear plausible, and then use these to examine propositions we were unfamiliar with to assess their truth/certainty (or plausibility) status.  Often, the categories may include not only apparently straightforward logical or aesthetic categories, but also subjective or idiosyncratic categories of restricted context (for example, the plausibility of ‘honour killings’, ‘culinary codes’, ), or even the more difficult ‘rational’ categories that are deemed to be scientific, (like for example, derivatives of science, maths or empiricism, applied arbitrarily to prove a point or defend an assumed value – the value of humanitarian aid, the universality of human rights, the right to life, the ideal of democracy, marriage as a form of ‘coupling’ restricted only to two people, the possibility of conferring rationality via the transmission of knowledge etc.).

Naturally, one type of logic may challenge the logic of another typology of thinking or plausibility; but, rarely do people challenge their own certainty. One may dispel with blind faith in religion and become an atheist, but still but retain the very foundational plausibility structures that supported religious faith in other areas of belief/ value systems. Once initiated into a mode of logic and the correlative plausibility structures that reasoning entails, one rarely challenges the certainty of those assumptions. Our assembly of plausibility also unconsciously draws upon very subtle plausibility structures we may remain oblivious to.  Our socialisation process initiates us via the discourse we consume as ‘knowledge’ to structure a typology of plausibility based on a reasoning process. We draw upon various correspondences to refute or confirm a proposition.

Understanding ‘plausibility’ entails challenging its very foundations, ripping them apart, and questioning our own thinking categories. While some categories are easily identifiable, other more subtle forms of value that are smuggled into the equations of plausibility may elude us.  We constantly need to question our thinking processes and, in particular, the beliefs that appear to us to be ‘certain’ and the categories or catalogues they are constructed against or upon.

 

[i] Fromm,1971,  ‘The Crisis of Psychoanalysis’, London: Johnathan Cape Ltd., page 38.

Audi, (Eds) 1999, ‘The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wittgenstein, L. , 1969, ‘On Certainty’, Oxford: basil Blackwell.

Apr 06

Humanism – A personal perspective

Kevin Cassar

It was inevitable. Most, if not all of us, have experienced it. In hindsight, I can also say it had been a long time coming. The rejection of the doctrine we were conditioned to accept in childhood, could not continue to co-exist with the reality we experienced around us. The cognitive dissonance was far too strong, far too obvious.

The Rejection of belief:

I cannot recall the exact date when I realised that I was not a believer, probably because the transition happened over a considerable amount of time. I had always been sceptic, and by the time when I was at an age where I could understand and question the doctrine that I had been constantly bombarded with, I knew that something did not quite add up. Like all the other children my age, I was fed a lot of absurd and contradicting assertions, and was simply expected to accept them as "truths"; but even though I had started to reject the belief, I still found it hard to break off completely and accept that I was, in fact, an atheist. Atheist? The word had very negative connotations, because we had been led to believe that atheism was evil, that questioning was bad, that doubting was a sign of weakness, and that being different meant that you did not "fit in". We had to have faith, we were told, and when things did not make any sense, it was because we could not understand “God's plan”. Why was it so hard when it was so clearly wrong? Why was it so hard to let go?

How it happened:

It all made sense later on when I understood the whole modus operandi of religions. Get them while they are too young to understand let alone question, fill their minds with absurd but authoritative claims, and dismiss any different or contrary beliefs as evil. Convince them that doubt is a weakness and whenever it showed up, it needed to be nipped at the bud. Instil an element of constant fear (hell) to ensure compliance and submission, and sure enough, you will gain total control of the subject. They will grow up to be brainwashed and emotionally attached adults who will feel they need to be “saved”, and pushed through emotional fear, will ensure continuity by repeating the cycle with their offspring. It's a perfect method, one that has been successful for thousands of years, and has survived to our times. The system works wonders, especially when applied to individuals who follow the mainstream, and who would do anything just because everyone else is doing it. As someone who never followed trends (quite the opposite in fact) and who never took too kindly when some “authority” finished their sentences with “because I said so”, it was perhaps easier for me to stray and question all the beliefs that I thought I held.

The Ventriloquist act:

With my new perspective, I started seeing things very differently. I started to challenge any religious claim that made no sense at all, and sure enough, I never got a reasonable explanation from those who made the claims expecting me to simply submit to their “authority” like all the others. It was clear that “God” was a concept in people's minds, created to make sense of things that did not have an explanation and as a tool to control the masses. God was like a ventriloquist puppet. He always said the things that the believers wanted him to say, wanted the things they wanted, and rejected the things they did not like. Sure enough, there were a lot of ventriloquists, each with their own puppet. They all claimed that theirs was the “one true God”, and their message was “The Truth”, but just like a ventriloquist puppet, their “God” never said a word when they were not there.

The Internet and Humanism:

With the event of the internet, things changed rapidly. Information was available like never before, and it was available instantly, at the click of a mouse. Before the internet became available in our homes, I used to think that I was part of a very tiny minority and that no one I knew was a non believer like me. The internet revealed that things were not quite so and that there were a lot of others who, like me, had rejected all the nonsense and accepted that they were Atheist. I started to join groups and watch a lot of Youtube videos from other Atheists, especially debates involving Christian apologists. It was a revelation. Not only was I not alone, but there were many others like me, who reasoned in the same way and demanded empirical evidence for extraordinary claims. They had no issue with saying “I don't know” and would keep searching for real answers rather than make stuff up of just accept the answer that provided them with most comfort. This gave me great encouragement and was the catalyst for me to seek to join with others who shared my views and concerns, and who would make their voices heard. Being an Atheist meant only that I rejected god claims, but I wanted much more than that. Luckily, I had a pleasant surprise when I found out that not only were there more people like me in Malta, but they were also setting up a Humanist Association. I had to join, and of course I did.

Fight or Flight?

It is part of the nature of most living things, including humans, and it determines how we react when we find ourselves in a dangerous situation - a decision that we have to take instantly for the sake of survival. In my opinion, a similar approach should be taken when we deal with religious people. Most of the humanists I know, including myself, have spent years researching, watching debates, reading books and constantly searching for new answers or a new perspective. Because of this, most arguments with the common believers are a complete mismatch. Most believers have not even read the book that they base their beliefs upon, and many of them even deny in disbelief when someone points out a contradicting or absurd passage from their book. They simply keep repeating the stuff that they have been indoctrinated with, and no matter how hard one tries, they simply will not listen. Unfortunately these still make up a very large number, perhaps half or more, of the local population. Debating with them is as productive as trying to bring down a brick wall by blowing through a drinking straw. While our numbers are growing, we are still a minority group, with very limited resources and as such we must learn to make the best use of our time and choose our battles. This is why I feel we should employ the “fight or flight” attitude towards debating with religious people. If the ones we are debating with can be somewhat reasoned with, we should “fight”, in a civilized controlled manner, resisting the urge to immediately dismiss their views as absurd – even when they are. In other cases though, the best option remains “flight”, avoiding confrontation with people who cannot see reason if it hit them on the nose while driving a fire-truck. With these, any argument is just a waste of time – time that could be spent doing more productive things.

Apr 06

Learning to walk out of the dark caves into ever brighter light.

Ian Grech

Science is a way of discovering how the Universe, of which we are part, works through the use of testable explanations and predictions. It is an evolutionary process where a scientist uses the work of those before him in order to gain that next piece of knowledge. Each discovery builds on its predecessors. Through this we learn how to use the Universe to make our lives better. In mostly every aspect of our everyday lives we owe a great deal to the scientist who strive to learn how some seemingly irrelevant matter works, and the engineer who applied that learning to create a machine or artifact that we use or consume without giving the slightest thought to the centuries old stack of discoveries that led to it.

Man has always been intrigued by the environment he lives in. The growing of trees, the flight of birds, the sun, the moon, the eclipsing of the sun and the moon, the motion of stars, lightning, thunder, fire, day and night, rain, hot and cold, plagues and earthquakes are a few of the millions of experiences once defined as mysterious and magical. Men had no grasp of the why, when and how any one of the above happened and thus attributed them to one divinity or another. In some cases, like the Sun, an object was a Deity itself. Slowly mankind learned that careful observation allowed for the mysterious to be explained and understood. Science was born. One of the most ancient fields of study (together with agriculture) is astronomy. The Sumerians recognized that mathematics could explain how the heavens worked. They could calculate the length of the day and predict eclipses. In a comedic twist, this knowledge was used more for astrological purposes than built upon for further learning. But, then again, perhaps this was to be expected and the astrology was the learning, the experiment. A species in its infancy had unraveled the secret of the sky’s clockwork and could predict its future. Why not use the same deterministic approach to a person’s life? Today we know without any doubt that astrology is hogwash, but to a Sumerian it was possibly the forefront of scientific research.

In Greco-Roman times science was more a philosophical endeavor. Ancient Greek philosophers debated the nature of matter, disease, life and the stars. They explained observations through argument rather than experiment. In some areas this manner lead to explanations such as Ptolemy’s geocentric universe and Aristotle’s elements, which while satisfying the inquisitiveness of the time were constructs without solid facts. Regardless of content, it is a sad matter that a huge number of these classical Greek texts are lost to us. They were important stepping-stones along the path. We only know of their existence through references by later authors. A legacy of these Greek philosophers is the proper names we use today for most sciences and (scientific) events, concepts and ideas.

After the Greeks came the Arabs and their five-century long (circa 8 – 13 century) ‘Golden Age’.  They translated to Arabic texts from older cultures. Greek, Persian and Indian texts were all now available in Arabic. An effect of the spread of Islam was the spread of Arabic, making the translated texts accessible to a wider population than they had been in their original language. The Arab manner of doing science was different from that of the Greeks and they provided the seed to what we today call The Scientific Method. They also gave us great works in Mathematics, Physics and Biology as well as establishing a base for modern healthcare and education.

Following the end of the Golden Age it took 300 years for another spark to take science to the next level. This happened with the Renaissance starting in Italy and spreading throughout Europe. Were the facilitator in the previous era was language, the one for the Renaissance was the printing press. Multiple (exact) copies of a text could now be produced faster and in greater number. In this age the importance of empirical evidence (ie: verifiable by observation) and mathematics in science were greatly understood and helped to further refine the scientific method.

Starting from the 19th century, the spread of scientific knowledge was facilitated by an even greater availability of books and lately the Internet. The positive feedback loop of scientific progress and technological advancement lead to more, and greater, discoveries. Today information is available faster and in greater quantity than ever before in the history of mankind. Experiments exist which collect or create data faster than can be analyzed. In some fields scientists seldom work alone instead collaborating on some massive experiment needing the construction of highly specialized and expensive tools and machines.

Scientific knowledge today is not limited only to scientists and science students. Numerous books and magazines are available that explain facts, findings and theories at various levels. The non-scientific citizen can therefore still gain some knowledge, or at least an appreciation, of some aspect of the Universe. One however has to be careful what text they decide to read. On any given scientific topic one will find texts that disseminate inaccurate and false information, distorted facts or hold on to some obsolete fact presenting it like it is some modern discovery. Book (and magazine) reviews in known science based online fora can help greatly to filter the reality based material from the hullabaloo.

More fantastically, today even doing science is also not limited to scientists. Citizens can help scientists through working on online collaboration projects such as Zooniverse (https://www.zooniverse.org/). These projects provide basic training and tools to enable a non-scientist citizen to carry out some basic level of research. Furthermore citizens can help by donating time on their computer. This requires installing an application on their computer (from http://boinc.berkeley.edu/) and then subscribing to which project at the forefront of today’s science they want to help in. From asteroid photometry to CERN simulations to protein analysis to environmental research are all there. And, aside from participating in top notch research, more tangible payback is possible. Hanny van Arkel, a Dutch school teacher, had discovered a rare type of astronomical object while reviewing pictures for the now defunct citizen science project named Galaxy Zoo. This object is now called, and shall be forever known, as Hanny’s Voorwerp. So doing citizen science grants normal people a chance of being immortalized in the great halls of scientific discovery along with the likes of Hubble, Watt, Darwin and Dalton.

Apr 06

Welcome 11/01/15

Welcome to the first Malta Humanist Association newsletter for 2015!
In this edition we are publishing a series of articles which we hope you will find interesting.

In the first contribution Ian Grech talks about how science has helped us discover the secrets of the universe throughout history.

Kevin Cassar recounts his personal journey in arriving at the humanistic worldview that he holds today.

Meinrad Calleja disputes our certainties thence urging us to question our motives and viewpoints.

Tura Satana talks about gender stereotyping in her unique and deeply analytical article.

We will be holding our first talk for 2015 titled Modern Problems in Cosmology at the Education Department in Floriana at 6pm on Thursday the 22nd of January.
Please feel free to copy and share this meme.

humanist meme 2
We wish to emphasise that unless clearly stated otherwise the content of this newsletter does not represent any official MHA position but simply the views of the individual authors.  We trust you will find the content interesting and we would appreciate your comments on the blog site and if you would share the articles on social networking sites and via email.

We look forward to your feedback and invite anybody who has anything interesting to contribute to contact us.  Also very welcome is anyone who can help in the publication and dissemination of the newsletter.

The Editors

https://www.facebook.com/groups/maltahumanist/?fref=ts

Jan 30

Humanists support SHout campaign, encourage NO vote to spring hunting

Turtle Doves

As Humanists we are deeply concerned about the environment in which we live. We are not a species in isolation, and our happiness and wellbeing is inextricably linked with other species in an intricate web of interrelations and an ecosystem that encompasses the planet.

We must always be aware of the ways in which we have a negative impact on our environment, and if necessary be prepared to make sacrifices to mitigate the harm. From buying energy-saving devices to reduce pollution from fossil fuels, to recycling the waste we generate, every little bit helps.
On the 11th of April, the people of Malta are being called upon to make one such decision - to determine whether hunting of birds can continue during spring.

The spring migration season marks the penultimate stage in a bird’s annual cycle. It is heading from Africa back to Europe to nest. Not all birds survive winter of course - some will fall victim to predators, or die of other causes. The ones that survive would have flown thousands of kilometers, and are on the final leg of their journey before they reach their breeding grounds in Europe. Killing a parent bird before it can produce the next generation goes against all principles of sustainable activities.

Apart from the direct impact of hunting on the authorised species it is an unfortunate fact that a legal hunting season provides cover for those hunters who shoot indiscriminately at all species of birds, as well as the fact that the Maltese public is kept out of the countryside by hunting activities.

Hunting is not a right but a pastime, and like any pastime it can be subject to restrictions. Just as Malta has banned spear fishing while scuba diving, it can stop hunting during spring, and this is not a breach of anybody’s rights. On the contrary it is a rational way to limit our impact and try to stem the steady and alarming decline of bird populations in the wild. We urge everyone, including hunters, to vote with an eye to the future of bird populations and vote "No" to spring hunting on the 11th April.

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