Monthly Archives: March 2011

Bad Reasons for Unbelief

Over at his blog Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne brings up two atheist quips which have annoyed me every since I first heard them a long time ago. They are very poorly reasoned, yet people goo-goo about how swell they are because they are quick, superficially true, and tell people what they want to hear.  The first is from Christopher Hitchens and the second from Steven Weinberg.

I mentioned Hitchens’s challenge: ”Name one moral action performed by a believer that could not have been done by a nonbeliever,” followed by his ancillary challenge: “Name one immoral action that could only have been performed by a believer.”  There are no good answers to the first challenge, but many to the second.

Now, the statements as given are both strong challenges. They both do the rhetorical work that atheists want them to do.

The problem is in what is left out.  Substitute the word “atheist” for “believer” in the above and see what happens: the exact same thing.  There is nothing good that atheists can do that religious people can’t.  And plenty of evils atheists can do that religious believers can’t do (look to communism and other secular ideologies for examples).

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If You Think This Radiation Release Is Bad…

You should see some of the others.

The world has already seen the equivalent of a nuclear war, between 1945 and 1963.  “What?” you say?  There was no nuclear war then.

It was not a war in the classic sense, but rather a war of testing.  Over 500 atmospheric tests were conducted in those years, releasing an estimated 10 tons of plutonium into the atmosphere, not to mention tons of other radioactive isotopes, some of which (such as Cesium 137 and Strontium 90) are still around (Craig and Jungerman, Nuclear Arms Race, 32-3).

Many of these tests were “colonial” enterprises, by the way, exploiting other nations for the sake of Western research. This includes the US testing in the Marshall Islands, including the 1954 Castle Bravo radiological disaster and Project 4.1 study of the victims. This is a personal matter to me because I taught high school in the Marshall Islands for two years. Exploitation of the weak for the sake of the strong is evil, and it makes me angry.

Only with the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 did atmospheric testing *mostly* stop (not all nations, i.e. France, immediately signed on to the treaty).

The radiation release in Japan is insignificant compared to the fallout from those 18 years of atmospheric testing.  That doesn’t mean the current event at Fukushima lacks ethical significance – it is still very significant because it displays lack of foresight and human hubris in the face of nature, among other things.  But in terms of the magnitude of fallout, it is very small.

This video gives a sense of the insane levels of “testing” that have been done of the sake of nuclear weaponry.  Watch it and you will see what has already happened.

We are effectively all the survivors or descendants of survivors of a nuclear war that occurred between 1945 and 1963.  We are alive.  We are a bit cancerous and mutated, perhaps, but alive nonetheless. Needless to say, contaminating the planet with grotesque mutagens for the sake of threatening the apocalypse was a morally bad thing. The Cold War turned out non-apocalyptically, but it still wasn’t good. And these weapons are still around, and proliferating.

The Ethics of Technological (Especially Nuclear) Power: Japan as a Case Study

I wrote a post on the ethics of power-in-general recently, and on the fact that power is not evil, it is good, just vulnerable to misuse. I also just posted on the ethics of nuclear waste. Then a terrible thing happened in Japan: the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. And suddenly, something that was good – a source of electricity – has become a poisonous disaster.

Nuclear power is one of the most powerful technologies humans have developed, period. Whether in power plants or more obviously in weapons, nuclear fission and fusion release tremendous energies and lethal byproducts. This is human power at its mightiest, and therefore ethics must here be at its mightiest as well. But it is not. Hence disaster.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was not adequately located or engineered. It probably should not have been built at all, or if it had to be located where it is, it should have been more strongly constructed (like built on an artificial hill…) and had better backup systems. The moral imperative with immense power is to care for it with great responsibility, to control it and direct it towards the good. (As I’ve said before, Spiderman (and Jesus) sums it up best: “with great power comes great responsibility.”)

One of the interesting things about nuclear power is that, unlike fossil fuels which stop producing heat unless actively fed, for nuclear power heat builds up unless actively removed. This is extremely dangerous for precisely the reasons we have seen in Japan. If the cooling system fails, the reactor goes on its own trajectory towards meltdown.

Technology could have prevented this nuclear calamity if only it had been properly applied to the problem. Science could gauge the risk, and technology could have mitigated it more effectively. But human will decided not to take the safer course.

With human knowledge and power reaching ever farther into nature, we are losing our previous excuses for error. “Unforeseeable” is becoming a word that is harder to use, because we can now “see” so much. And with our technology we are able to do so much to compensate for the dangers we see.

Because of this – our immense knowledge and power – every disaster is now a technological disaster. We choose not to prepare, not to act. And if we have the knowledge and the power, and yet fail to correct the problem, then we have morally failed. Therefore if every disaster is now a technological disaster it is also true that every disaster is now also a moral disaster. Continue reading

Philosophical Music Video

This silly video has been making the rounds for a while, and it just shows that good philosophy can get polished up pretty well into a music video…

Nuclear Junk

National Geographic has some amazing images (go to their website and scroll through them to see) of HOT nuclear waste being transported in Europe.  Those little atoms can do some interesting things… I’ve always found the idea of innately warm inorganic material to be rather disturbing.

There are some interesting related stories too, such as the one Marilyn referred to below on the “silver lining” of the mushroom cloud – it might temporarily ease global warming!  And another discussing radioactive groundwater leaching out of an abandoned salt mine/nuclear waste dump in Germany.

And not to be left out, we have radioactive stuff right here in California, of course!  Radioactive beagle residue at UC Davis.  I used to know a radiation officer who had been keeping track of the radioactive plume spreading in the groundwater from these experiments.

Such are the hazards of modern life, I suppose.  We gain power and we mess up before we figure out how to use it properly.  Personally, I think we need to try a little harder not to make our planet poisonous to advanced life forms.  Cockroaches can take a lot of radiation.  Humans not so much.


Just found this fascinating movie about radioactive storage in Finland.  Storage for 100,000 years.  Something for future generations to remember us by…


Reactors are melting down in Japan right now.  These power plants should never have been built in these locations.

Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, Part 2

On to Chapter 1 on moral truth.

This is Part 2 of this review. In case you missed it, Part 1 of this review (the review of the Introduction) is posted here. And Part 3 is here.

As with last time, the structure will be: summary of main points, agreements and disagreements, evaluations of specific points, and evaluations of general points.

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