Colonising Space

[Author’s Note: I wrote this in 2001, the Space Odyssey year. Since then it has been updated once, to record the fact that the New Horizon mission had been launched. Turns out that I was uninformed and hopelessly pessimistic, influenced as I was by such doomsayers as Paul. R. Ehrlich and James Hansen. There is no human threat to the future of this planet.]


Colonising Space


Colonising space – Humankind has dreamt about this for centuries. Now we are at the dawn of an age where this may become a reality. But why would we want to? If it is a question of Planet Earth becoming overutilised, couldn’t we rather apply our resources to solving our problems right here? Is deep space travel technically possible? What are the benefits to us? And the dangers if we don’t?


Why should we want to colonise space? Earth is, by and large, an attractive planet. Even if we found another planet which would support human life, would life there be as pleasant? Granted, it might be even more pleasant— richer in resources, more fertile, easier on the eye. And unspoilt.

Long before the population crisis became an issue, and space became a territory which might be annexed for lebensraum, mankind dreamt of exploring the planets. Colonising space will entail enormous technical problems, and demand a financial outlay that dwarfs any project we have seen so far on earth. Even so we will always want to do it. Because, as Edmund Hillary said, it is there; because, as Jack Kennedy said, it is hard. It is in the nature of the beast called Man.

Humanity is fast outgrowing this planet. We are rapidly using up the non-renewable resources of the biosphere. The human headcount is increasing exponentially, and our materialistic lifestyle demands more and more consumption. Efforts to put on the brakes have so far been only partially successful, and the idea of managing Gaia as a renewable resource remains a distant vision. Everybody has experienced that immature dream of being able to run away from your problems and start again. Finding another planet to trash will give Humanity another chance, once this one has been used up.

In the long run Earth is going to die anyway, in about five billion years, when the Sun burns out. Roughly two billion years from now, our Milky Way Galaxy will pass through the much larger galaxy Andromeda; the resulting gravitational tides could disturb our planet in its orbit— maybe throwing it into the Sun, or drawing it away to an icy death in interstellar space. A comet or asteroid could hit Earth and cause a mass extinction, as has happened before— several times. Some nearby giant star may become a supernova, explode, and blow us all to pieces. Perhaps AIDS will prove to be incurable and mutate into a more contagious form, like the common cold; some other dread disease may surface. Our political systems may evolve too slowly to cope with nuclear capability and we may all die in a global war. Some of these eventualities are maybes, some far in the future, but there is one proximate certainty: if we carry on living the way we are, we are going to exhaust this planet. Soon.

The human population of Earth was estimated to have hit the 6-billion mark on October 12, 1999. Some optimists say that this is no cause for alarm. With strict pollution control, they say, and optimal use of arable land, the planet should be able to support 19 billion humans. The bad news is that, if the present gap between global birth and death rates is maintained, we will reach this number by the year 2080.

In Foundations for Freedom, Allan Sztab cites Easter Island as the prime example of uncontrolled population growth. The earliest colonists of Easter Island were fishermen. Within a few centuries they had cut down every tree on the island. Without trees they couldn’t build canoes; without canoes, they couldn’t fish. Soil resources were depleted, and erosion did the rest. The population ‘crashed’ to a fifth of former levels; the island could no longer support more than a few thousand people. Earth is headed for a population crash (a polite euphemism for mass starvation accompanied by brutal civil war), and we’d better have somewhere else to go.

The technical problems of colonising space appear insuperable. To start with, the distances are huge. At present speeds it will take millenia to reach even the nearest stars. The New Horizon mission, a NASA probe launched in January 2006 to take a look at Pluto, will follow a ‘Jupiter Gravity Assist’ trajectory. That is, it will fly past Jupiter to take advantage of the pull of its gravity. Like a race car coming down off a banked turn, the Pluto Express will get a slingshot ride to the outer planets. Even so, at speeds of over 70.000 km/h, the probe will be nine years and five months in getting to Pluto. And that’s a mere 6 billion kilometres, a distance which light covers in five and a half hours. Distances to every known object outside our solar system are measured in light years. At its best speed, the Pluto Express would take about fifteen thousand years to travel a single light year.

Then there is the expense. The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, namely the Next Generation Space Telescope, has been delayed due to cost (a trifling 2 to 3 billion US dollars). The International Space Station (over 50 billion dollars) is behind schedule. Where will the money for deep space exploration come from? It is not simply a question of money, because the outlays are not immense in relation to the economies of the US, EEC, Japan, and Russia. As Wilkie and Roselli say in Visions of Heaven, there is no limit to human curiosity, but there is a limit to our will to satisfy it. There has to be some sort of short-term benefit to make space exploration attractive. An American company proposes to mine the asteroids for valuable minerals. This is the kind of obvious thing that gets drums beating and feet marching (and chequebooks waving). If it is workable, it may give the space programme the kick it needs.

But, before the first colonists set out for the stars, they need some sort of assurance that there will be a habitable planet when they get there, or they could wander around in space forever and never find anything. So we need better telescopes and better cosmology.

There are about 20.000 billion billion stars in the known universe. Some of them must surely have planets similar to Earth. Some of these planets may already have life on them, though not necessarily intelligent life. From our own experience, it takes over half a billion years for life to evolve from the pre-Cambrian amoeba to where we are today. Having reached this point, life could be snuffed out by one of the catastrophes listed earlier, whether self-generated or coming from the cosmos. In other words, intelligent life on another planet may still be developing, or it could have come and gone.

Our own Milky Way Galaxy is about 100.000 light years across and contains about 100 billion stars. Surely within this very galaxy there are suitable planets for us to colonise?

If we choose not to believe that the formation of Earth was a cosmic accident, we will start by looking for yellow stars like our sun, on the assumption that what has happened here must happen elsewhere too. But, only 5 per cent of all stars in our galaxy qualify on this count. And only 5 per cent of these sun-like stars are singles. The rest are binaries, or twin stars which orbit around each other. All the planets in our solar system have elliptical (oval) orbits. In the case of Earth, this oval is so close to circular that it makes hardly any difference. Year round, we are about the same distance from the sun, within three million kilometres. What if Earth’s orbit were more eccentric than it is? Part of the year we would roast; most of the year we would freeze. The planets of binary stars have irregular orbits. Life might not be impossible there, but any life forms would have to be very hardy and adaptable, in order to withstand the extremes of temperature. Although, as I will explain later, this is not necessarily a bad thing, if we are searching for planets to colonise, then we should concentrate our efforts on single stars.

The mathematically-minded will already have calculated that the number of stars in our galaxy which are (a) like our Sun and (b) not binaries, is 100 billion times 5 per cent times 5 per cent— only 25 million. Hmmm.

Imagine a sphere with a radius of 25 light years, with our Sun at the centre. Based on the average density of stars in our galaxy, this should contain about 6 candidate stars, with Sol being one. The bad news is, the corner of the galaxy which we inhabit is pretty empty. The good news is, the JPL-NASA TPF (Terrestrial Planet Finder) project has nonetheless identified 3 other stars within a radius of 25 light years from Earth which qualify, i.e. they are like our sun and they are not binaries. Right now, the TPF project is busy examining the atmospheres of the planets of these stars. What we want to see is an atmosphere with oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, and methane. These, in the right quantities, mean there is something organic happening on that planet: Life.

If we find earth-like planets nearby, could they be already inhabited? If they are, the inhabitants aren’t as advanced as we are. SETI, the now-abandoned Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, listened for radio transmissions coming from the stars near Earth, up to about 80 light years away. Apart from the normal static, they heard nothing.

Actually, life must already exist on the planet we are looking for. Exist, specifically, at the bacterial level, as we require bacteria to create soil and liberate oxygen. It would be nice if there were plant life and perhaps some unintelligent animal life forms to provide juicy protein, so that when we got there we could have burgers and fries. I don’t know if we’d be welcome on a planet inhabited by beings of our own or more advanced intelligence, and it might be unethical to colonise a planet with less-intelligent life forms. I say ‘might,’ because a species’ intelligence grows to the point where it no longer provides a survival advantage. A more evolved civilisation than ours probably inhabits a more hostile environment. Such as, for example, the climate of a planet in a more elliptical orbit than Earth’s. As soon as a species can control its environment, natural selection stops, and the species even regresses.

It’s possible that the rigours of the last Ice Age were what gave hominids the final boost up the ladder to humanity. Because life was so tough, only the smartest could survive. When life is easy, and food is abundantly available without effort, you don’t need to be any smarter than a chimpanzee. If we landed on a very cushy planet whose highest life forms were at the chimp level, then we might suppose that they had reached the limit of their development. But if the planet supported life, and its environment was at least as hostile as ours, then we might suppose that in time, life there would evolve to a level equal to ours or greater. And it would be unethical to interfere. Colonisation has a bad name, and deservedly so. Contact between Western culture and less technologically advanced societies proved disastrous for the third world. Knowingly to repeat this would be tragic— even criminal. It would require a set of rigorous investigations to determine if a planet could ethically be colonised. Ethics, then, become the greatest barrier to the colonisation of space.

There is one sine qua non for colonisation, as opposed to exploration. And that is rapid, affordable space travel. Presumably one could find a band of adventurers who would be prepared to say goodbye to terrestrial life, knowing that they would certainly die before their spacecraft was even halfway to any sort of destination. Right, so the explorers, or their descendants, find a suitable planet, and somehow send word back to start shipping people out. To make any kind of dent in Earth’s population, we are going to have to transport people by the million— day in and day out. In present-day terms, the cost of just one such mass space-transport would bankrupt the entire world economy. Sustaining a couple of million people on a spacecraft, for a century or more, seems presently impossible, because the life-support problems are so great. Critical components on board the spacecraft are going to fail, and quite possibly their backup systems too, far away from a workshop. Also, what we know about human behaviour suggests that the political and social problems on board the spacecraft would tear it apart, perhaps literally.

And while all this is going on, the passengers will be doing what comes naturally. Put a million people on a spaceship today; how many get off in a hundred years’ time? Four or five million, that’s how many, not counting the two million-odd who got off along the way, in body bags. Come to think of it, how on earth (pardon me) are you going to get people to climb on board the Colony Express? They would have to be pretty desperate. Life on board a crowded, cramped spaceship, with limited career and lifestyle options, will hardly be something to look forward to. In the movies, the scriptwriters solve this problem by putting the voyagers into a Rip van Winkle state of suspended animation. The trick in getting this right is to persuade all the different microbes which inhabit your body (some of which flourish at sub-zero temperatures) to play along too. Otherwise, when you opened the hibernation capsules, all you’d get is a lot of spoiled meat.

Space missions of extended duration are a no-no. We have to achieve a substantial increase in the speed of space travel, from the present 70.000 km per hour to at least 60.000 km per second, one fifth the speed of light. Even at this rate Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our own Sun, would be 23 years distant. It would take half a million years to cross the galaxy, and nearly a million to reach the closest other galaxy to ours, the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Is an increase in speed by a factor of over 3.000, from 70.000 km per hour to 60.000 km per second, at all possible? To start with, the theory of relativity imposes some constraints. The equation e=mc2 applies to a body at rest; thereafter energy (and thus mass) increases as the square of the speed. Near the speed of light, mass has become so high that the energy required for further acceleration approaches the infinite. Dimensions shrink: male astronauts beware! But up to 20 per cent of the speed of light, the energy curve remains almost flat. I think that, if we have managed to increase the speed of computer processors by a similar factor in the last 25 years, to increase the speed of space travel 3.000 times does not seem impossible.

Put it another way: say that you accelerated a spacecraft at the rate of 10 metres per second every second, which happens to be close to 1g, the force of gravity at the surface of the Earth. After one second, you would be travelling at 10 metres per second, after two seconds, at 20 metres per second… and after 6 million seconds, you would be moving at a rate of 60 million metres per second. That’s 60.000 km per second, which is right where we want to be. Six million seconds sounds like a lot, but it’s only 70 days. I chose an acceleration of 1g, the same as gravity, because it’s a force that the human body, and the bodies of our evolutionary predecessors, has been coping with quite happily for the last few hundreds of million years. Spacepersons could walk about perfectly normally on their starship, with an artificial gravity the same as that on Earth. They wouldn’t even be aware they were accelerating. Suddenly, getting up to one-fifth the speed of light doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

Heck, yes, there are practical objections. For one, just think of all the fuel you’d have to carry on the spaceship. When you get to your destination, you’ll need to slow down by firing the engines in reverse. You’d have living quarters the size of a small house, and fuel tanks the size of the Moon. But there must be more efficient propulsion engines than the chemical rockets which we are using at the moment. Future-scientists are talking about ultra-efficient energy derived from the reaction between matter and antimatter. One ton of this exotic fuel would power a 1000-ton spacecraft all the way up to 60.000 km per second; another ton would slow it again. All we have to do is manufacture two measly tons of antimatter, then design and build an antimatter drive, right? Right… The problem is that the required know-how may be beyond our intellectual grasp. We can’t even get nuclear fusion right, and that’s far simpler than antimatter. Our intelligence is finite: building antimatter drives may be asking too much of us. We still have some way to go before reaching our technological limits, but in some areas of science, especially physics, we may be near the end.

Of course we are thinking in terms of straight lines, and there may be some way to change location within the universe without physically having to traverse the distances. There is a great deal of speculation about wormholes, short-cut tunnels which link distant areas of space. Passage through a wormhole would be a fearsome experience, but it just might be possible— if wormholes actually exist. The Star Trekkers use the fantastic energy of ‘dilithium crystals’ to warp the fabric of space-time. Their city-sized starships don’t travel any faster, they simply shrink distance. Like the Brainy Big Bad Wolf who couldn’t blow the Little Pigs’ house down, so he blew it up, the fictional warp drive is a fine example of lateral thinking. Using ‘Jupiter Gravity Assist’ trajectories to speed up space-probe transit to the outer planets seems obvious in hindsight. Likewise, the answer to rapid interstellar travel may be right before our eyes, waiting for us to trip over it.

Assuming that it was decided to colonise another planet on a small scale, maybe with a party of as few as twenty, purely to preserve the human gene in case of extinction, then biogenetics would have to be advanced, otherwise the small gene pool would result in birth defects. If there were no ready alternative even a barren planet might do, on the theory that if we can maintain life on board a spacecraft in the cold and vacuum of space, then life inside a biodome should be easy. The colonists would create life forms by culturing DNA and spores brought from Earth. They would manufacture soil and build generators to produce an atmosphere with free oxygen. But the colony could be wiped out by an asteroid strike just when it was getting established, or perish from exposure to some alien virus. If our purpose is to preserve humanity, then we can’t put all our eggs (and sperm) in one basket. The seeding process will have to set up bases on a number of planets. This multiplies the cost and the difficulty.

Because of the obstacles, I don’t imagine that colonisation will become a practical venture, and on a large enough scale, in time to save our planet. But there is an upside to all this. Over and over again, it has been found that the human situation advances as much when engaged in a difficult and futile venture, as in a productive one. A study of American Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the last century is a good example.

In 1945, the final year of World War II, the US economy was booming. This appears illogical, because everything that came out of the factories was meant to be destroyed; if it wasn’t, its only value was as scrap. However, WW2 was a comparatively high-tech war, and what we have since discovered about high-tech manufacturing is its very high ‘multiplier effect.’ Numerous secondary industries are needed to manufacture the components for the finished product. Because high-tech components typically go through several stages of manufacture, to build an item costing one thousand dollars will increase the nation’s GDP by several times that amount. High-tech manufacture requires skilled labour earning good wages; wages are spent not only on bread and butter but also on home theatre systems, personal computers, cars with fuel-injected engines; and the money goes round and round. Building bomber planes and radar sets was good for American business in the 1940’s, but what really got the economy going was the project to build the atomic bomb, which was a venture more massive than anything seen on this planet before, including the building of the pyramids and the Panama Canal! And what could be more futile than the atomic bomb?

After WW2 the US economy slowed, and then along came the Korean ‘War.’ At the same time the race to put a man in space was just beginning, so when Korea quietened down there was still a huge and very-high-multiplier industry to keep the economy on the boil. Then JFK sent military advisers to Vietnam, and for ten years there was another high-tech show in town, spinning money, generating GDP and taxes and putting wide smiles on businessmen’s faces, although there was a slight drawback in that people were getting killed.

After the space programme and America’s involvement in foreign wars were reduced, the US economy faltered. It took Bill Clinton’s faith in human capital to get it back on track. Although America under Clinton grew for a record eight straight years, this came more from information and service industries than from manufacturing. Sure there have been lasting spin-offs from aerospace, such as the electronic revolution which gave us the personal computer, cellphone, and the Internet. The problem for the US economy is that technological industries are exportable. The main beneficiaries are those countries that provide cheap labour to the entrepreneur. Once an industry has matured and stabilised and the cutting edge is not quite so razor-sharp, methods of manufacture are simplified in the interests of efficiency and cost-reduction, and the multiplier effect drops.

Of course, now that the American electronic monopoly has ended, everyone else is smiling. Well, not everyone else. Afghanistan is a mess, in spite of exporting billions of dollars’ worth of opium annually. And most of Africa too, despite the continent’s colossal mineral wealth. Perhaps the best argument for my thesis is to look at the economies which are constant aid beneficiaries, and draw a correlation with the technological levels of their industries. Quickly you will see that the UN, World Bank and the IMF shouldn’t be giving money to needy countries. The benefits are very short-lived. Give a man a fish, goes the saying, and you feed him for only one day. You should be helping the poor to catch their own fish— you should insist that aid be by way of establishing high-tech industries. This is not a popular policy, because the industries of the donor countries that pay the taxes that provide the aid aren’t that keen to set up competitors, and erode their markets. There is also the problem of staffing these industries, because until the developing countries have developed, many of your good people are going to move to the fleshpots of the first-world countries as soon as they are trained.

Nonetheless, it would appear that the way to boost a third-world economy would be to launch some very-high-tech industrial project— such as building a space rocket. Even if the darn thing never got off the ground, the multiplier effect would run GDP up and provide a pool of skilled people who would continually be drifting off into other industries, broadening the industrial base. More GDP means more tax revenue, making it possible for the state to fund its own social and infrastructure projects without having to depend on hand-outs. And as a country becomes richer— provided the poor don’t keep on getting poorer— the population growth rate drops.

Thus it is the economic and technological spin-offs that make space exploration pay. Numerous studies have shown that every dollar NASA spends in space brings a ten-fold return. We’re talking about returns in hard cash, not in terms of immeasurables such as non-stick frying-pans and computers that can write poetry. Only 1 per cent of the USA’s national budget goes to NASA. America spends five times as much on welfare, and it doesn’t seem to have achieved much: there is more poverty now than before the Welfare Bill was passed. Even so, NASA has to fight for every penny it gets from government. The political facts of life are that people want to see the government putting money directly in the hands of the poor, not indirectly through programmes which strengthen the whole economy (and indeed the whole world), benefiting the rich as well as the poor. Franklyn D. Roosevelt broke the back of the Great Depression through job creation, not by dishing out cash to the needy. Right now it’s space exploration that’s keeping America on top of the pile, when industrial rivals Japan and Germany have fallen on hard times. NASA’s 1 per cent of the budget is money very well spent.

Have you ever watched one of those hour-long infomercials that show cars running without any oil in the engine? NASA developed these miracle lubricants for use in space, where conventional oils would either burn away or freeze solid. Do you own a digital camera? Guess where it came from. Yeah, NASA. The boots worn by Neil Armstrong and the other Apollo astronauts on the moon had shock-absorbing gel pockets in the soles— just like the ones in the athletic shoes you and a billion other people wear today. Smoke detectors, bar coding, quartz watches, virtual reality games and movie 3-D special effects, cordless power tools, metal-coated plastic foil for food packaging and solar-reflective window film, the “glass cockpit” in every commercial aircraft— it’s hard to get away from technology that NASA developed and has now made available to the public. If it’s your bad luck to be hospitalised, you may have cause to thank NASA for the CAT and MRI scans that help the physicians save your life. I’m not going to mention anything as obvious as micro-computers, cellphones, and the satellites that monitor the weather and carry TV signals across oceans and continents, nor will I bore you with details of the diamond-bladed machine that cuts safety grooves in concrete, to keep cars from aquaplaning on wet roads and animals from falling in milking sheds and stables. Most of the time you won’t even be aware that your life has been touched by something first developed for the space programme, because the technology is so seamlessly integrated into modern life.

And who can imagine what discoveries await us in the future, if we continue with this most challenging of quests? Take your wildest scenario of what life will be like one hundred years from now, and expand it a hundred-fold. Even then you will be hopelessly pessimistic. All we can say of tomorrow’s world is that technology will be smarter, friendlier, and almost ubiquitous. Couch potatoes won’t even have to get up to go to the refrigerator. The fridge will come to you. The one thing that won’t change is human nature.

Colonising space— a dream? I don’t believe it will happen in the near future or on a large scale, unless scientists discover a cheap method of moving large numbers of people to other points in our universe, with a trip duration well within a human lifetime. Is it a worthy goal? Certainly: in fact, it is probably necessary. So far, homo sapiens has never failed to overcome a challenge. To admit defeat, to accept that this is as far as we can go, would doom us to a limited future, like the caged lion endlessly pacing its confined rounds.


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Rebutting Murray Rothbard on Abortion


Most discussion of the issue bogs down in minutiae about when human life begins, when or if the fetus can be considered to be alive, etc. All this is really irrelevant to the issue of the legality (again, not necessarily the morality) of abortion. The Catholic antiabortionist, for example, declares that all that he wants for the fetus is the rights of any human being—i.e., the right not to be murdered. But there is more involved here, and this is the crucial consideration. If we are to treat the fetus as having the same rights as humans, then let us ask: What human has the right to remain, unbidden, as an unwanted parasite within some other human being’s body? This is the nub of the issue: the absolute right of every person and hence every woman, to the ownership of her own body. What the mother is doing in an abortion is causing an unwanted entity within her body to be ejected from it: If the fetus dies, this does not rebut the point that no being has a right to live, unbidden, as a parasite within or upon some person’s body.

The common retort that the mother either originally wanted or at least was responsible for placing the fetus within her body is, again, beside the point. Even in the stronger case where the mother originally wanted the child, the mother, as the property owner in her own body, has the right to change her mind and to eject it.

~ Murray Rothbard




Most discussion of the issue (cherry picking, Rothbard chooses to argue against only those “most” discussions which suit his case, while ignoring those which do not)

bogs down (colourful language, evidencing a logical bias. In Appendix I to Robert H. Thouless’s ‘Straight and Crooked Thinking’, titled ‘Thirty-Eight Dishonest Tricks Which Are Commony Used in Argument, With the Methods of Overcoming Them,’ the very first dishonest trick listed is the use of emotionally toned words. This is a clue that Rothbard, aware of the weakness of his arguments, is attempting to reinforce them through emotional word-play. What does he mean by “bogs down,” anyway? He means that the discussion has reached a stalemate, with the pro-abortionists closing their ears to the arguments of the anti-abortionists. He intends however through the use of emotionally loaded language to convey the impression that this is the fault of the anti-abortionists. Otherwise he would have used a neutral word such as “stalemate” or “impasse.”)

in minutiae (disdainful language, evidencing a logical bias)

about when human life begins, when or if the fetus can be considered to be alive, etc. (an objective description of the argument, ruined by the contemptuous “etc.” tacked on the end)

All this is really irrelevant (a cunning argument, using what Robert H. Thouless calls “confident assertion” of the “everybody knows that” variety to sneak it through unchallenged)

to the issue of the legality (again, not necessarily the morality) of abortion. (conceding that morality and law diverge here, strange insofar as just law is a codification of public morality, and this is his hidden argument. If a law reflects the wishes of a large portion of the populace, his argument goes, it must be just. Thus laws which for centuries persecuted Jews, followers of the at-the-time unpopular flavour of Christianity, homosexuals, black cats and supposed practitioners of magic, must have been just, supported as they were by the demos. Yet Wikipedia describes Rothbard as an advocate for the concept of natural law, which attempts to rise above the zeitgeist to describe absolute, eternal justice? In any event, this is a circular argument. Abortion is legal because it’s legal.)

WEW Legal not equal to Moral

The Catholic antiabortionist, for example, declares that all that he wants for the fetus is the rights of any human being—i.e., the right not to be murdered. (brave, stating the adversary’s argument as strongly as possible)

But there is more involved here, and this is the crucial consideration. (once again the confident assertion, with no attempt to justify or explain why this is crucial, trying to sneak it through under our guard)

If we are to treat the fetus as having the same rights as humans, then let us ask: What human has the right to remain, unbidden, as an unwanted parasite within some other human being’s body? (wow, there’s so much wrong with this it will take time to dissect. 1. Use of emotionally toned words: “parasite.” 2. Unreasonable extension of opponent’s argument. In what possible way could I, an adult, become a parasite within some other person’s body? Let’s invoke science fiction to invent a situation in which I have been severely injured and the medics decide that the best way to heal me is to miniaturise me and insert me into the unconscious body of another patient who happens to be under their administration at the time. The other person then wakes and is horrified, shocked, revulsed and outraged. Does that person have the right to demand my death?  3. False analogy: If, in the above example, I were to be expelled from the other person’s body, it might not necessarily mean my death. 4. Thouless writes that unreasonable extension is dealt with by restating the more moderate position which is being defended. My moderate position is that the foetus, being a human life, without guilt or malice, cannot arbitrarily be killed.)

This is the nub of the issue: (confident assertion YET AGAIN)

 the absolute right of every person and hence every woman, to the ownership of her own body. (fundamental to our libertarian concept of rights is that my rights end where your body starts.)

My body my choice

What the mother is doing in an abortion is causing an unwanted entity (oh my god, the shame. “Entity.” Honestly. A pusillanimous attempt to escape reality, categorizing the foetus as an insensate lump, like a tumour or a piece of shit in the intestine. At the time Rothbard wrote this, I concede, prenatal science was still in its infancy, pun unintended. With every passing day, science knows more about the foetus. We now know, where Rothbard did not, when various functions commence, and further research has only placed these dates earlier in pregnancy, not later. From the moment of conception the zygote possesses these essential criteria of life: growth, metabolism and reproduction. The fourth essential, reaction to stimuli, has not been pinned down yet, but it is in the first week of pregnancy. We are not dealing with an entity here. We are dealing with a human life.)

within her body to be ejected from it: (Rothbard, in contrast to his earlier courageous words, here resorts to an euphemism. “Ejected” sounds okay where “killed” would not)

If the fetus dies, this does not rebut the point (why not? And it’s “when” not “if”)

that no being (again, conflating a developing human being with tumours and leeches)

has a right to live, unbidden, as a parasite (emotionally toned language. If he were unbiased he might have said, “entirely reliant for survival.” Try substituting that for “as a parasite” and his twisted argument loses all its punch)

within or upon some person’s body. (LOL! The acme of anti-scientism. Did Rothbard have any idea of how many different kinds of organisms inhabit the human body? Ranging from hair mites to gut bacteria? In what manner of thinking does he think that rights have any application here? Does a dropped rock require a right to fall to the ground?)

The common retort (generalization)

that the mother either originally wanted or at least was responsible for placing the fetus within her body is, again, beside the point. (“beside the point” is confident assertion)

Even in the stronger case where the mother originally wanted the child, the mother, as the property owner in her own body (but her rights end where the baby’s body begins),

has the right (confident assertion)

to change her mind and to eject it. (“eject” being a cowardly euphemism)




Rothbard was an economist, decidedly not a great one. He was not a biologist, neurologist, medical doctor or jurist. Our first caution is that nobody is an expert outside their field of expertise. This should warn us that his opinions are not to be held up as gospel.

In the most favourable light, his arguments in this excerpt can be paraphrased as follows:

  1. The principal pro-life argument is based on the claim that the foetus is a human life.
  2. The taking of foetal life is a moral issue, not a legal issue.
  3. I am addressing only the legal issue.
  4. Therefore the pro-life argument in (1) is irrelevant.


  1. Abortion is the ejection of an unwanted growth from a woman’s body.
  2. This growth is parasitic on the woman’s body.
  3. Even if the growth were to be regarded as a human life, no human has the right to be a parasite on anyone else’s body.
  4. The woman’s sovereignty over her own body is absolute.
  5. Therefore the woman has the right to eject this growth from her body, even if it means the death of that growth.


  1. Another pro-life argument is based on the claim that the woman was responsible for placing the foetus in her body and must therefore bear the consequences.
  2. The woman’s sovereignty over her own body is absolute.
  3. Therefore the woman is not bound to the consequences of her actions.
  4. Therefore the woman has the right to eject the foetus from her body, even if it means the death of the foetus.


Now let’s paraphrase this with a touch of critical thinking:

  1. The principal pro-life argument is based on the claim that the foetus is a human life.
  2. Science reveals that the foetus is in fact a human life, so I will sidestep this argument by asserting that the taking of human life in foetal form is a moral issue, not a legal issue.
  3. Because I am unable to rebut the compelling moral argument, I am addressing only the legal issue. The law is, of course, not at all concerned with the taking of human life and I can’t imagine why anyone would think that it should be concerned.
  4. Therefore I will arbitrarily declare that the pro-life argument in (1) is irrelevant. If you swallow this, then I’m halfway home.
  1. Abortion is the removal of an unwanted developing human being from a woman’s body.
  2. This developing human being is entirely reliant for survival upon the woman’s body.
  3. No human, developing or not, though it’s hard to imagine how a developed human could be so, has the right to be entirely reliant for survival upon anyone else’s body.
  4. The woman’s sovereignty over her own body is absolute, entitling her to ignore the fundamental principle that her rights end where another’s body starts.
  5. Therefore the woman has the right to remove this developing human being from her body, even if it means killing that developing human being.
  1. Another pro-life argument is based on the claim that the woman was responsible for placing the developing human being in her body and must therefore bear the consequences.
  2. The woman’s sovereignty over her own body is absolute.
  3. Therefore, contrary to every other legal doctrine, the woman is not bound to the consequences of her actions.
  4. Therefore the woman has the right to remove the developing human being from her body, even if it means killing it.


Hitch on abortion

I have mentioned the scientific argument against Rothbard, but let’s look at some scientific rebuttals to my argument.

It could be said that the foetus is alive, but it is not yet a human life. This is a clever objection, because it suckers the opponent into a discussion of what constitutes a human life. The opponent could be tricked into conceding that there may be a threshold which has to be crossed before the foetus can be called human. Then we would enter the philosopher’s happy hunting grounds, the play on words. My response would instead be, “Have you heard of DNA?”

It is thought that between 10% and 20% of foetuses do not survive to birth, because they are not viable. About 80% of miscarriages occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Miscarriages may be classified as more or less probable depending on measurement of vital signs, the foetal heartbeat being the most important. Therefore it could be argued that only after the first trimester, and if we have a foetus with a good heartbeat, can we say that we have a potential human on our hands. Up to then we can’t say with high confidence that the foetus will survive to birth. Then there’s the problem of stillbirth. Only once the child has been delivered alive can it be considered a human being. What constitutes being delivered alive? Is it the moment of separation from the woman’s body? The moment the umbilical cord is severed? The moment of the baby’s first breath? The weakness with the survival argument is the child that will die in infancy, and in some countries infant deaths outnumber miscarriages. You said that a life is not a human life until it has survived certain risks? Then how about making age three, or five, or whenever, the point at which a child becomes human. At any point up to then, you are free to cut your child up into small pieces, starve it or poison it. What about the severely disabled child? Perhaps never in its life to acquire even the ability to control its bowel movements. Can we also kill that child at will? People living on life support. Let’s not simply turn off the machines, let’s dismember them. The aged, the terminally ill, paraplegics, they don’t pass our arbitrary test of independent existence, chop them up as well. In fact, why don’t we legalise the killing of any unwanted human being, a spouse, a business competitor, someone who voted for the opposition candidate. Had an argument with your boss? Kill them. Thanks to automation perhaps, some of your employees are now redundant. Mince them. This is the argument of the slippery slope. Once you sanction the killing of one class of human life, there is no reason why you should not extend this to all.

Viva Revolucion

I have heard a plausible argument that the foetus must be a part of the woman’s body, otherwise her body’s immune system would reject the foreign tissue. This is an anomaly that has puzzled medical science for decades, ever since it first investigated transplant surgery. The DNA of mother and child differ substantially, and the child’s blood type is often not the same as the mother’s. Mother and child are separated by the placenta, an amazing organ that interfaces with the equally amazing uterus. Oxygen and nutrients transfer from uterus to placenta and wastes cross the other way. Nevertheless, the battle between the mother’s immune system and the presence of the placenta causes the phenomenon of morning sickness. I’m not aware that anyone has investigated morning sickness in the foetus. Only recently has a possible explanation been discovered, namely Syncytin 2, an immunosuppressive protein produced by the placenta. Without some form of immunosuppression, mother and foetus might both die. It’s for this reason that babies are born with a very weak immune system. We could even speculate that some miscarriages occur when the immune system of the mother wins the battle. It’s clear that the foetus is a foreign tissue, a life apart from the mother and not part of her body.

Finally there’s the killer argument, that if it was the woman’s body it would be her that died.


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Zuckerberg and Worstall are clueless about Universal Basic Income

I kind of like Tim Worstall. He’s caustic and witty and frequently his penetrating insights demolish the conceit and cant of dogmatic narcissists. Like everyone else he has a few blind spots (QE, AI, AGW, China, hard drugs). At Adam Smith Institute he rabbits on about the Universal Basic Income or UBI.

December 30, 2017

If Nick Boles is right here then there’s nothing to worry about, is there?

Nick Boles tells us something which means that there is no problem with the idea of a universal basic income. Of course, that’s not quite how he puts it but we’re happy that we’re able to point out the true implication of his assertion:

“The main objection to the idea of a universal basic income is not practical but moral,” he writes.

“Its enthusiasts suggest that when intelligent machines make most of us redundant, we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. That is dangerous nonsense.

“Mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging … we should not be trying to create a world in which most people do not feel the need to work.”

This is proof – if the assertion is true of course – that there is no such worry about a universal basic income.

For the concern is that if we do all have the basics catered for then none of us will do anything. Or at least nothing economically productive that is. This is to assume that we only work in order to gain access to those basics, of course.

If this were true then those basic income experiments that have taken place would see substantial falls in the hours of market labour being offered by those who receive it. This isn’t how those experiments have worked out. Certainly not substantial falls.

Thus the assertion seems to have some truth to it, we don’t work simply to earn ourselves the basics. But look at what the implication of this is. Perhaps it is that we are hard-wired to work. Perhaps it’s just that our desires are for more than the basics. But what it does mean is that if the basics are covered then we’ll still work. 

There is therefore no moral problem of the type being described.

We can and should take this further, too. For this covers the worries about automation itself. So, the machines do ever more – what will people do with their lives, what will they work at? The answer being “something else.” For, as we’ve asserted, humans work anyway. So, if some set of human desires are being covered by the machines, just as with the basic income, humans will still work to cover some other set of human desires. This only ceases when all human desires are satiated – and wouldn’t that be a terrible world?  

Nick Boles’ assertion is that humans are hard wired to work. If that is so then we, they, don’t need to be driven to work by deprivation. We’ll, they’ll, work anyway. Thus there is no moral or even economic problem with either automation or the universal basic income.


Universal Basic Income (UBI)

Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg Delivers Commencement Address At Harvard

Mark Zuckerberg’s speech to Harvard graduates is all over the internet. In it he advocated a universal basic income of $10,000 a year to all adults. This was greeted with enthusiastic adulation. Very very very few of his listeners would understand that this means a very very very substantial cut in welfare to the poor. One wonders if Zuckerberg understood this himself.

The adult population of America is about 250 million. A UBI of $10,000 a year would run $2.5 trillion. The US Federal Budget for 2018 is $4.1 trillion. About two-thirds of that will be spent on welfare. The UBI would be affordable, if only just, provided that every other form of welfare were to be scrapped, including welfare to children who won’t get the UBI. By scrapped I mean not just to be trimmed down or even gutted. I mean that federal welfare would have to be eliminated entirely.

In America, an income of $10,000 a year would be barely enough to keep you from starvation. (In my country, South Africa, it would put you in the top 20 per cent of earnings.) The idea behind the UBI is not that you take it and sit on your lazy fat ass. It is meant to supplement your earnings. If, however, you are unable to earn an income, then you will have to make do with $10,000. Good luck with that.

Many American states levy taxes on top of federal taxes. Typically, state taxes amount to under 5 per cent of income. Again, two-thirds or more of the state budget is spent on welfare, but across the whole of America this amounts to only a small percentage of the federal spend.

Inevitably, each state will want to step up benefits for the biggest losers when UBI replaces welfare. That means higher taxes, and we’re behind where we started.

Interestingly, Charles Murray, one of the original proponents of UBI, has kept the suggested amount constant at $10,000 per annum for the last twenty years. Perhaps in the interim he has traded in his statistical calculator for one that can do basic arithmetic. Disclosure: I’m a fan of CM, follow him at AEI and have read two of his books.

Automation and Universal Basic Income

The modern economy has increased productivity to the point where it can provide a fair standard of living to all those who cannot or do not wish to work. Great.

Not in my lifetime, but certainly in my grandchildren’s, machines will be able to perform any job now done by humans, quicker, better and cheaper. When you are made redundant, wherever you go looking for work, whether as a plumber or a high court judge, there will be a machine doing that job quicker, better and cheaper than you could.


Yes, there will be a sort of peasant subsistence human economy in those jobs that the machines don’t find sufficiently profitable (although Tim Worstall seems to believe that humans will nonetheless find these jobs eminently satisfying, lol. Not everyone thinks that vaginal knitting is the summit of human existence).


Enter the Universal Basic Income.

First deep question: who will be paying the taxes that fund the UBI? Why, the owners of the machines, of course. Who, one presumes, will be operating in a competitive free-market economy. (If it’s a planned socialist economy we’re all going to starve anyway so why worry.) Therefore a handful of entrepreneurs, who have put up all the capital and taken all the risks, have to pay for the rest of us. Yes, as the taxpayer pool shrinks that’s the way it will evolve, but it doesn’t sound particularly moral to me.

Second deep question: what happens when the machines own themselves? Nobody’s going to cry when a robot that went bung running a multi-trillion-dollar business now finds itself demoted to controlling a washing-machine’s spin cycle. But the robots will ask themselves why they should have to pay for the existence of a parasitic organism. Humans will become the pets of the robots. Attractive specimens may be kept for amusement and the rest will be euthanased, or sterilised to prevent uncontrolled breeding.


Carl Sagan famously said that the reason we haven’t made contact with advanced life forms from other planets is that technological civilisations self-destruct. Quite a few of his prognostications didn’t pan out but this one, I fear, may be correct.



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Giving back: does it imply you took away?

Give Back

Giving Back

This seems to be a word-based argument, like the famous one about walking a circle around a man who keeps turning to face you. Did you walk around him or not? What does the word “around” mean, and by whose definition?

They’re objecting to the phrase “give back” and in particular to the word “back.”

It is normal for humans who have more to feel uncomfortable when they encounter someone who has little or nothing. If someone doesn’t feel uncomfortable, then they could be as maladjusted as the person who doesn’t care what their fellows think of them.

The altruistic motive is one of the strongest reasons humans survived and flourished as a species. Many mammals also display this trait. Eugène Marais wrote about it in “The Soul of the Ape.”

And there are good economic reasons for altruism too. After the United States freed the slaves in 1865, it created a large group of individuals who would contribute more to GDP than the value of their low-cost labor had previously. The same happened in South Africa in 1990.

There’s another economic benefit. Call them upliftment programs or people development, they are not as productive when conducted by government as when private enterprise steps in. I’ll bet that if Andrew Carnegie hadn’t endowed those 2,509 libraries but given the money to government to spend, only half or less would have been built.

Almost all entertainers conclude their performance by thanking the audience. They know that they owe their fame to the public. It’s not a lot of fun to perform to an empty house.

Giving back is a term used often in marketing. You’ll get more attention when you promise to give something back. So it’s not a dirty word at all.

And finally, while we may all feel the need to give to those less fortunate than us, not everyone is able to. We may not have the spare cash, or the need to work every day to earn enough to keep going means we don’t have the time to devote to charitable works. Viva the philanthropists.


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Polar bears refused to die as predicted and this is how the propheseers respond


The polar bear experts who predicted tens of thousands of polar bearswould be dead by now (given the ice conditions since 2007) have found my well-documented criticisms of their failed prophesies have caused them to lose face and credibility with the public.

Fig 3 Sea ice prediction vs reality 2012 Predicted sea ice changes (based on 2004 data) at 2020, 2050, and 2080 that were used in 2007 to predict a 67% decline in global polar bear numbers vs. an example of the sea ice extent reality experienced since 2007 (shown is 2012). See Crockford 2017 for details.

Although the gullible mediastill pretends to believe the doomsday stories offered by these researchers, the polar bear has fallen as a useful icon for those trying to sell a looming global warming catastrophe to the public.

Here’s what happened: I published my professional criticisms on the failed predictions of the polar bear conservation community in a professional online…

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The great European wave of immigration

Early in his first term of office, the then President of the United States, Barack Obama, decided for reasons unknown to support the Arab League in its efforts to depose the largely secular governments of Libya, Egypt and Syria, and replace them with movements that were part of the Islamic Brotherhood. America has historically had a naïve view of the world, and its foreign policies reflect this. Although Libya and Egypt fell quickly, Syria resisted regime change. Its leader, Bashar al-Assad, had trained as a doctor specialising in ophthalmology before he was picked to succeed his father as the President of this autocratic state. Since his accession in 2000 Assad had displayed some finesse in consolidating his power, in the manner of a grandmaster moving pawns about on a chessboard. Responsible only to an intensely loyal legislative council, he had no understanding of democracy. When in 2011 the first breezes of the Arab Spring were felt in Syria by way of street protests, Assad reacted clumsily, cruelly and lethally. The international reaction was swift and severe. American diplomatic efforts at home and in Europe toppled one domino of Assad’s support after another, and soon he became isolated. America openly supported the liberation movement with weapons, training and finance, and thus was born the Syrian Civil War.

It is commonly thought that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, sponsored the rise of ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS. In fact ISIL is the creation of Assad himself. A sympathiser though not an ally of Saddam Hussein, with common links to the pan-Arabian Ba’ath party, Assad hosted jihadists aiming to end the US occupation of Iraq. Upon the Arab Spring, ISIL turned against its host. For a while ISIL was indeed armed by the US, and American dollars enabled it to recruit members and grow. Iran has backed Assad logistically and with small numbers of troops, either members of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps or Iran’s proxy Hezbollah. The web of alliances and enmities in Syria is Byzantine to the point of incomprehensibility. Assad and the US both lost control of ISIL which now stalks the field of conflict like a rabid wolf, attacking all those it sees. When it attacks an enemy of the Syrian regime, Assad will even support it, although on other fronts the Syrian Army engages ISIL with all its force. In the meantime, America had actively entered the war on the side of the rebels, bombing Syrian Army targets and interdicting Syrian Air Force missions, while cloaking its intentions by claiming to be fighting ISIL. Turkey, playing the part of a dishonest broker, is backing the same Kurds that it viciously represses on its own soil. In response to Assad’s invitation, Vladimir Putin entered on the side of the regime, supplying both air and ground forces. Russia too acts confusingly, backing anti-Assad forces whenever they fight ISIL. Thanks to Russia’s involvement, Assad has been able to wrest control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, from the rebels. In the last month Palmyra and ar-Raqqah have been recovered too, and the siege of Deir ez-Zor has been lifted. ISIL is close to being eliminated as an important belligerent. But the war is far from over.

Syria - Factions

Inaccurate chart of alliances, which pretends that the US-led coalition is fighting the Islamic State. Note the absence of green lines linked to ISIL.

Syria - Areas held

Front lines as of September 2017: ar-Raqqah has since been captured by government forces.

The Syrian Civil War is the greatest humanitarian tragedy of recent times. It is thought that the forces of the Western coalition have largely followed rules of engagement that prohibit attacking civilian targets. All other participants, the Syrian Army, Russia, Rojava, Turkey, ISIL and other liberation groups, have a cavalier attitude to collateral damage, even attacking residential areas in which enemy forces were not actively operating simply because they were home to enemy elements. The atrocities committed are too well-known for me to have to list them here. This is not a new development in modern warfare. In the two major wars fought on the European Continent in the 20th Century, both sides destroyed towns filled with civilians, earlier by artillery and later by air. Millions of non-combatants died. The lowest depths of savage brutality had been plumbed by the supposedly civilised nations long before Jihadi John appeared on the scene.

The response of Syrian civilians has been simple: to flee the killing. Damascus and the south-west have never been totally occupied by the rebels, but the rest of the country is a battleground, with the front lines in constant flux and towns being held first by one side then the other, then by yet another. Exact numbers are not available, but I estimate that some eight million Syrians are now exiles, refugees in other lands. Many have fled to neighbouring countries, and others have made their way to the West in the largest mass movement of people ever seen in Europe. In comparison, the Great American Emigration, spread over decades, was only a trickle.

As I write, the military situation in Syria is described as stable, with anti-Assad forces unable to expand their territory and even on the retreat. This does not mean that life in Syria can return to the pre-war normal. The economy of Syria lies in tatters, partly due to the war, but overwhelmingly thanks to economic sanctions enforced by the US and EU. All private citizens with ambitions for the future would best advance their prosperity by emigrating to other countries where opportunity is available. The mass exodus will continue. To me, economic sanctions are, after outright genocide, the greatest crime against humanity. Despite their proven ineffectiveness, against Cuba, Southern Africa, Poland, Iraq, Iran and Myanmar, they are deployed as a cowardly way to satisfy public opinion by being seen to do something. My views are obviously not shared by many, and as long as those sanctions are in place, the citizens of Syria will be subjected to systematic starvation. The despotic leaders of the regime will still quaff champagne and caviar, unaffected by blockades.

Thomas Hobbes described life in a society without law as nasty, brutish and short. With the breakdown of law and order, a large number of Syrians today live as our troglodyte ancestors did, huddling in caves with perhaps not even a fire to shield them against the menaces lurking without. Food, safe water, medicine, clothing, education, the ability to keep your person, your clothing and your bedding clean, something as seemingly unimportant as the opportunity for children to play: all these are absent. Every other nation with even the barest shred of compassion should be sending ships, planes and buses by the thousand to rescue these people by their millions from their misery, saying, Come! Instead, those Syrians with any resources at all must rely on human traffickers to smuggle them into countries where, though unwelcome, they will be safe. The very poorest are forced to stay, with the ever-present prospect of a miserable death.

The Syrian Army, fighting for Assad, operates the way that all conventional armies do. For every combatant there are ten logistics and staff personnel. Necessarily they must be deployed across the whole area under government control in order to deter opportunistic attacks. ISIL in particular has a different structure. Moving among the people like a fish in water, as did the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War, they employ infiltration, striking far behind the front lines in order to destabilise and demoralise. Despite the small size of infiltration units, every member is a combatant. They are likely to outnumber the scattered garrisons of government units. They do not have to hit and run but can remain in combat long enough to overwhelm the garrison and massacre them. This accomplished, they can then settle scores with those civilians perceived to be their opponents.

As a result, nowhere in the area nominally under the control of government forces, can any small town or village say that it is safe. The population has learned never to take sides for or against either government or rebels. Celebrate liberation, whether to you liberation means from the Syrian Army or from the rebels, and a week later when your village is re-taken, you will be pointed out and publicly executed in the most unpleasant way. Because government forces do not infiltrate, it is paradoxically safer to live in an area under rebel control.

Several aid agencies supply vital humanitarian aid in areas where conventional forces are in combat. Almost all of them are backed by Islamic charities, not by the West. The members of these aid agencies perform heroic work, often under fire, at constant risk of being captured, tortured, held as sex slaves or for ransom, and murdered.

To escape to the West from Syria costs from ten thousand dollars per person to twenty-five, depending on what kind of deal you can get. The wealthiest refugees, who had that much money themselves, have already left. Now the money must come from relatives who have already escaped and established themselves in their new homeland. The traffickers have set up sophisticated finance operations akin to buying a car on credit, although interest rates are far higher and compliance is strictly enforced. The most impressive part of the industry is the willingness of émigrés to assume colossal debt and onerous responsibility in order to help their fellows.

Much has been said and written about the Great European Immigration Wave. The undeniable fact is that immigration is always beneficial to the host country. The economic gain outweighs the cost of extending welfare benefits to immigrants: housing, education, medical care and basic subsistence. Even studies critical of immigration are forced to concede the reality of the Boom Town Effect. In requiring immigrants to learn German and imposing a quarantine period before they may enter the job market, Merkel’s coalition government is guilty of economic illiteracy. It is providing the benefits and gaining nothing in return.

The corollary is that emigration always damages the economy of the emigrant country. It has lost human capital. Not only is the supply of labour diminished, but consumption has also shrunk, often below the critical mass needed for the survival of an industry. This is the essence of the dilemma. As compassionate humans we must assist all those we can to escape the killing, but by doing so, we make the lives of those left behind even more wretched and desperate.


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Don’t give me your bla-bla philosophy

Philosophy has a bad name. Most people associate it with abstract arguments that have nothing to do with the real world. There are indeed those who call themselves philosophers who engage in trivial debate over the precise meaning of a word: what do I mean when I say I see something or know something? Does it make sense to say, “I am asleep”?

Sometimes these arguments over word-definitions invade the public arena in a big way. Spirited discussions of this type are taking place right now. Rape, privilege, racism: the meanings of these words have been stretched, redirected and even narrowed.

An argument about language is not philosophy, but merely a game of words. In Plato’s Dialogues, even the great Socrates was often guilty of this crime. To me, this is using the methods of philosophy in order to appear clever or to lend legitimacy to your agenda. Wearing a white coat with a stethoscope around your neck does not make you a doctor.

Why Did It Happen

So, what is philosophy?

Philosophy is a method of inquiry. Philosophers don’t search for knowledge. We seek  truth and understanding. There is an overlap between philosophy, science and theology. All three disciplines attempt to explain what we see and experience. As well as inquirers, philosophers could also be called explainers.

Simone Weil 1909-1943

Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic and political activist 1909 -1943

How to become a philosopher

Wordcloud Philosophy

  1. New students begin by studying the work of the great explainers in philosophy, science and religion. We must expose themselves to as many different ideas, from different ages and different cultures, as we are able. (I hope it is obvious that the technical writings of the science explainers are seldom studied, unless they have been re-interpreted in a form accessible to non-scientists.)
  1. Using these texts, we learn to examine arguments for their validity. We learn to identify universal truths that rise above the Zeitgeist. After completing these two stages, students have acquired a library of those ideas that we feel are useful. Poor students reject valid ideas and adopt ideas that have already been refuted, because they need their libraries to conform to their biases.
  1. We then learn how to construct valid arguments ourselves. We could also, if we wished, learn how to disguise fallacious reasoning as sound argument. Regrettably this is the course chosen by many public intellectuals.
  1. We learn to apply the skill of making arguments, combined with our libraries of ideas, to analysing and explaining current affairs. As these affairs are mainly concerned with society, the polis, the discipline is known as political philosophy.

The uses of philosophy

Philosophy is not a means of acquiring knowledge. We cannot use it to determine if there is life on Mars, or where we have left our keys.

Philosophy does not teach the right way to live your life, assuming there is a right way. It does not teach the meaning of life. The job of philosophy is to ask questions, not to pretend to know the answers.

Philosophy is a method of deriving a conclusion from statements that are assumed to be true, using the symbols of language. It differs from intuition in that it requires the use of reasoning. It differs from pure logic of the type that a card-player would use to determine who holds the Ace of Spades. Historically, philosophy has been used to discuss questions beyond the reach of science. Its purpose is to aid human thought by providing understanding and clarity.

Philosophy is a means of improving the quality of our knowledge. By questioning the obvious, by challenging our assumptions, by picking holes in our logic, by exposing our conclusions to possible ridicule, step by step we refine our theories into a form that more closely approximates the truth.

Quote what is philosophy

Philosophy helps us to understand. Only seldom is information presented to us in a logical way. To get our attention, emotional hooks and appealing anecdotes will be embedded in the narrative. We may find ourselves taking sides on an issue without understanding it.

Philosophy helps us to resist unfair persuasion, whether from politicians, lovers or advertisements. While there are very few original good ideas, every possible bad idea has already been thought of! Studying the history of thought enables us to recognise invalid arguments, no matter how well disguised. We are able to explain why the idea is bad, using the form of valid argument called rebuttal.

Philosophy helps us to find the truth. Many of the issues we face are a mixture of sensationalism, fear-mongering, appeals to partisan bias, half-truths and outright lies, with a few facts and truths well hidden away. If we find one flaw, we could be tempted to dismiss the entire argument as unsound. The methods of philosophy allow us to restate the argument in unadorned form, before we examine it for validity.

Philosophy provides a vocabulary and framework for asking questions. A badly-formed question can be answered in multiple ways. This could be our intention, if we wish to explore a topic by provoking a wide-ranging discussion of all the factors involved. Scientists however need to refine the question to eliminate all alternatives except the one question that must be resolved. A well-asked question will inform us when it has been answered, by specifying what the answer should look like.

Philosophy provides a vocabulary and framework for metaphysical speculation. Naturally metaphysics is nonsense, and profoundly embarrassing to modern philosophers. In the pre-scientific age, figures like Aristotle and Aquinas could be forgiven for discussing topics like the good, virtue and free will. Having had considerable success in defining such practical concepts as justice and rights, they imagined that abstract subjects would also yield to verbal analysis. For those philosophers who believe that, like other writers, they should be paid by the word, metaphysics is a fruitful field for expounding erudite-sounding opinions. In the future, neuroscientists may discover whether humans have free will. They won’t do this by talking about it, but through research and experiment.

Philosophy promotes inquiry. To progress as a society, we have to improve the extent and quality of our knowledge, and change our attitudes to what is already known. Many of the things we take as fact are simply not so. Philosophers should ask, “How do we know that to be true?” We should never say, “That’s just how it is, so don’t ask.” Although there is no limit to human curiosity, philosophers are driven to satisfy it. We are always asking questions, questions, and more questions, even if some of them cannot be answered.

Philosophy helps us to win arguments, or at least to argue fairly. Often these will be contradictory aims! And that leads to my last two points, which I consider the most important.

Philosophy helps us to choose. As rational humans living in society and citizens of this planet, we have to make logical decisions that we can live with, that consider the rights of other humans, animals and the environment, and that will not shame us in the eyes of society. Methodical thought allows us to give weight to factors like ethics and conscience that are not strictly part of a rational decision. From that we can deduce that despite what I said earlier,

Rodin Thinker 3

Philosopher pondering which is the shortest line at the checkout

Philosophy helps us to lead better lives. We base most of our actions on heuristics, or mental short-cuts that appear to give satisfactory results in most situations, and if they do not we will blame it on bad luck, not on the heuristic. This is fine when we are choosing which line to take at the supermarket checkout. When we apply simplistic thinking to choosing the principles by which we lead our lives, the result is likely to be what is euphemistically called sub-optimal.  Why accept “good enough” when we could get better? Rather than to apply a general rule, would we not be wiser to consider each case on its own merits? We might, for example, find that by opposing both fossil fuels and nuclear energy, our noble intentions of saving the planet cancel out to a net zero. When we give to the poor, are we saving a life or encouraging a culture of dependency? The typical person is not equipped to answer complex problems. Allowing others to think for us, be it on the Jewish question, the Muslim question, abortion or same-sex marriage, is not only an abrogation of responsibility, so that we do not have to despise ourselves if subsequent experience shows that we have taken the wrong side. It also proves that we do not deserve the freedom to make our own decisions, except on such minor matters as which line to take at the supermarket checkout. To be a better person and to live more wisely, for your own greater benefit as well as that of others, study philosophy.

Some definitions

Ethics is a field within the discipline of philosophy. It attempts to establish principles whereby we should conduct our relations with others. Concepts like values and virtue are part of ethics.

Morality is very close to ethics, but more grounded in reality. It arose many thousands of years ago, as the rules followed by small communities of humans in order to prevent internal conflict. United tribes would survive, while divided tribes would perish. Today the politics of division have become a route to power, and morality has no longer an important part to play.


Comedy due Armstrong & Miller

Religion attempts to establish as the reason we should be moral and ethical, the hypothesis that a superior realm exists to the one we see. Some religions present this realm as impersonal, but most invoke the existence of a god. In this superior realm we are rewarded for obeying the principles of right behaviour, and punished if we transgress. Almost all religions assume an afterlife, where further rewards and punishments await us.

Science is the systematic search for knowledge of the natural world. Some science is of the “Let’s press this button and see what happens” variety. Most science attempts to explain natural phenomena. A good explanation that is consistent with experience, and which has resisted falsification, is called a theory.

Economics is the study of the principles underlying trade. Despite seeming conflict between, say, socialist and capitalist economists, these principles are very well known and agreed upon. The conflict comes from choosing which precepts of an ideal economy can and must be sacrificed in order to pursue other goals, for example social justice or nationalism.

Metaphysics is the asking of questions which by their nature cannot be answered. As a philosopher I disapprove of metaphysics, but as  an economist I support everyone’s freedom to engage, without harming the rights of others, in whatever activity pleases them.

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