Thursday, June 7, 2018

Faith and Objective Truth -- Never the Twain Shall Meet?

By Jon Phillips

In his article, Jon Phillips responds to an opinion piece by Stephen T. Asma in the New York Times, which posits that, "our minds are motivated primarily by ancient emotional systems, like fear, rage, lust, love and grief. These forces are adaptive and help us survive if they are managed properly..." and fundamentally, religion helps manage them.

I heartily agree with his thesis that scientific facts cannot feed the more ancient parts of our souls. The parts where the seat of emotion resides. This part of the human mind is central to the survival of the individual, families, communities, and at this point in human development, nations and probably the world. The problem, however, is that in a world where humans are overpopulating and increasingly damaging essential habitat that we and many other animals and plants rely on to survive (we are now in the "Anthropocene" -- directly influencing the entire biosphere of the Earth), learning about OBJECTIVE truths, accepting them and taking action on them is becoming critical to survival -- just as critical as overcoming psychological grief, trauma, finding love and purpose. The question is not what is more important, the cognitive or the emotive, but how to get them to properly coordinate to produce the outcomes we desperately need.

In the ancient world in which humans evolved into a specific subspecies of bipedal hominids (there were several others that died out), our emotive mental processes were most critical to survival. We created religions as social mechanisms to enhance cooperation in our clans and tribes. Today, the shadows of this long process of psychological evolution is plainly displayed in our modern religions and the more ancient mythologies they were based upon. Modern systems of law and regulation are evolutionary extensions of more ancient religious codes.

Faith is an essential thing to effectively function -- even for an atheist. The notion that any particular person is purely scientific in their thinking is nonsense. We have to accept the validity of most of the "facts" we learn based on the authoritative context of those facts. The only difference between this approach and the reading of religious scripture is the definition of what constitutes "authority" regarding objective truth.

In science, we look for theories based on application of the scientific method -- independent repeated observations that lead to hypotheses that are challenged continuously by further observations, but survive to be accepted as theories (which can also be overthrown by a verified challenge at any time). Since we cannot all perform the observations and make the discoveries ourselves, we accept the position of the authorities that we study. In narrow topical areas, those of us who are scientists, may directly contribute to this process, but most of our knowledge is accepted by faith in other authorities. We have FAITH in findings of the scientific community, knowing that if a sufficient challenge takes down a theory it will be replaced with something else -- a temporal kind of faith based on a process of continuous discovery and evaluation of observed evidence

In religion, faith is not based on faith in the scientific community's findings and its rigorous challenges, it's based on faith in the teachings and writings of religious authorities and our emotional reasoning about that information within our community of "significant others." If it stopped there, it would be a SUBJECTIVE truth -- somewhat of an oxymoron. As a result, typically, these teachings and writings claim the authority of some deity as the source of higher "inspirational" or "revelatory" authority and this deity is all knowing and trustworthy. This is the metaphorical equivalent of a child saying to another child, "that's the truth" and having another child ask "how do you know it's true?" And then receiving the answer, "because my mom says so." If the children are young enough, that may be enough authority to accept the position on faith. Our parents are our first god and goddess -- that's part of the psychology of childhood development. We are fortunately endowed with the ability to believe in authority and to have related faith. We are also endowed with the ability to eventually question and to doubt authority and to lose our faith in a particular limited authority
In the long history of humans (most of it) in which verifiable evidence was very limited, observation and measurement technology and methods of rigorous evaluation had not been developed sufficiently to have faith in a scientific method. For most of human existence, there was no written language and information was passed down by oral tradition. Religion is a formal approach to gain cooperation through consensus on certain important social, psychological and metaphysical issues. Humans are inherently tribal and a tribal system of shared beliefs (a local religion), is highly useful to create a frame for cooperation and mutual support in a human community. Over time, religious thinking has evolved, but it is still fundamentally based on faith in the authority of a deity which cannot be observed, tested or verified.

Now the question is how to get science and religion to work together to resolve our most pressing needs as societies and individuals? Science, as most people think of it, seems to be purely in the realm of intellect and of the material world. I wager that even many of my scientific peers experience it this way. Religion seems to many scientists, to be an ancient set of mythologies that have little reason to continue to exist. A bag full of magical thinking.

My personal journey through a deep grief to acceptance and resolution of loss, was not supported by my religious beliefs in the end. In fact, that experience plus many others, deconstructed the religious beliefs I was raised with -- those beliefs (hypotheses) were challenged by observations and they were replaced. I increasingly find resonance between the "faith" I have in science and in my remaining and instinctual magical thinking. You can't strip hundreds of thousands of years of psychological evolution out of the human animal -- it changes gradually, though faster than other physiological systems. But you can examine it carefully and reconstruct your interpretation of the magical to become increasingly consistent with the facts of the world as you know them.

I've found that my magical thinking, when broken down and isolated from religious interpretations (sometimes taboos), can be more accurately interpreted in the frame of science than in the frame of religion. I've found that my magical thinking is more fundamental and basic than religion and can be refit with a new "interface" -- an interpretive overlay in the place of a classical religion. Magical thinking can be imbued with new meaning and made even more useful as a result. At least that is my experience.

So is there a future "faith" that can be constructed that marries our natural inclinations toward the emotive with our cognitive abilities making use of the scientific method? Can we allow our notion of an ultimate authority, and how to convey that authority to enhance faith, to become increasingly objective and real and to leave behind the circular logic of the authority of deity as found in most classical religions? To cease from being satisfied with: "because I told you so."
Jon Phillips is a Senior Nuclear Technology Expert at the International Atomic Energy Agency and Director, Sustainable Nuclear Power Initiative at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Afghanistan: Once Again a Pawn Between Two World Powers

by Jon Phillips
RESTREPO chronicles the deployment of a platoon of US soldiers at one of the most dangerous outposts in Afghanistan. This amazing documentary depicts a sad microcosm of that never ending struggle and how it effected a small group of US soldiers and their loved ones. Taking a 100,000-foot view is philosophical, but seeing the brutal reality of it grinding away at ground level is not.

We are still struggling in Afghanistan and now it increasingly appears that Russia may be arming the Taliban against the most recent quasi-stable government in Kabul -- one that we have supported since the US Invasion deposed the Taliban -- just as we armed the Mujaheddin against the Soviets and the regime they supported during the Soviet Invasion in late 1979.

The US has been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years and counting (the longest running war in US history by a wide margin — now under a third US President) with no end in sight. With the exception of the brief and brutal period of Taliban fundamentalist Islamic government following the Soviet withdrawal and the end of a brutal civil war that filled the power vacuum, Afghanistan has continually been at war since the 1978 communist coup. But the roots go back 5 more years to 1973 (I was 11 years old when this started) when Daoud Khan overthrew the feudal Monarch (his older cousin) in a bloodless coup and declared himself President of a Democratic Republic.

The feudal system created order by recognizing legitimacy of minor war lords (tribal chieftains more correctly) and their mountainous territories and strongholds, in exchange for homage and fealty to the Crown in Kabul. They met in a Loya Jirga to debate and decide the fate of their system and to endorse succession in the Monarchy (no divine right of Kings). Old fashioned, but effective, given the primitive circumstances on the ground in that complex geography.

Zahir Shah was, by common telling, a “good King”. Daoud was idealistic and thought he could drag Afghanistan into modernism. The sudden alienation of vassals and traditions, immediately resulted in a breakdown of the fragile order the Monarchy had managed, and within a few years, Daoud was overthrown and assassinated during a coup by a conjoined communist party (that also proposed to drag Afghanistan into modernity through Stalinistic methods). This provoked insurgency by the spurned vassals who entirely rejected the new regime and the never ending modern nightmare of Afghanistan began.

Two generations of men have been born and raised under arms. A third generation is starting. They know nothing but war. War without end. War funded by others and by opium cultivation. A few million people (the total figure is uncertain by plus or minus one million) have died in conflict since then, the majority of them have been non-combatants. Afghanistan is a small and extremely mountainous country that is sparsely populated mostly by traditional Islamic tribes. They have genes, religion and usually language in common. They are tough and self-directing people, befitting their rigorous geography. Their geography enhances their tribal sentiments by providing a natural maze of territories. In Europe, the closest topography is the region of the Alps, the high center of which is Switzerland. A country that even Hitler bypassed as too troublesome to take on.

Switzerland is divided into a Confederacy of many Cantons that are the remnants of small feudal lords (Germanic tribal chieftains). They’ve outlasted and fought off empires (the Romans, the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, the Napoleonic Empire). Switzerland has been conquered several times, but never held for long by a central, let alone foreign, power. Only the Confederacy of geographically based Cantons has persisted (each one “democratizing” with modern development).

Unlike Switzerland, which has lots of water and related natural wealth, Afghanistan is arid and austere. It seems unlikely that a central federal or a foreign power can gain and maintain control very long under such conditions. It may be that feudalism is the natural course through which Afghanistan might find enough peace to develop its way out of endless war. But now it threatens to head back into the abyss of a geo-strategic contest between great powers.

I wonder if I will live long enough to see peace restored in Afghanistan and how that might happen. I can’t imagine the horror of being born and raised in the midst of perpetual warfare. Humans are even capable of “normalizing” continuous combat and others seem happy to use their country and its people as a battle ground in a proxy war.
Jon Phillips is a Senior Nuclear Technology Expert at the International Atomic Energy Agency and Director, Sustainable Nuclear Power Initiative at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Friday, April 13, 2018

TALKING PAPER: Addressing Gun Violence in America


More people in the United States are killed, or kill themselves by firearms than in any other advanced country in the world. There are more mass shootings in America than in any other country in the world.


The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban outlawed 19 types of military-style assault weapons, but expired in 2004 and was not renewed.

In 1996, Congress effectively blocked government agencies from data collection and research on gun violence.

The AR-15 semi-automatic, assault-style rifle has been used in five of the six deadliest mass shootings in the last six years in the U.S.

Gun laws and their effective enforcement vary from state-to-state, background checks are uneven, and the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is flawed.


Make mandatory reporting by states and federal agencies to the NICS of all required data on those prohibited from purchasing firearms, including those adjudicated to be mentally ill, and increase incentives and/or penalties for compliance or non-compliance.

Establish a national universal background check system that effectively closes the gun show and on-line purchase loophole.

Promulgate standardized national qualification requirements and waiting periods for firearms purchases.

Impanel a “firearms policy advisory committee” to develop a comprehensive report for Congress on firearm purchase and ownership policy changes aimed at both keeping firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, and reducing the confusing, bureaucratic hassle of purchase and ownership for law-abiding citizens.

Fund research by the CDC into firearms related death and injury, as the major health crisis it is.


The Epidemic of Gun Violence in America

More Americans have died from gunshots in the last 50 years than in all of the wars in American history.

More people in the United States are killed, or kill themselves by firearms than in any other advanced country in the world. Compared to other such countries:
  • Gun homicide rates were over 25 times higher
  • For young Americans 15- to 24-years-old, gun homicide rates were 49 times higher
  • Gun suicide rates were 8 times higher
  • Unintentional gun deaths were over 6 times higher
Gun homicide is the 3rd-leading cause of death for American men 15 to 29.

There were 61,527 incidences of gun violence in America in 2017 (not including suicides), accounting for 15,593 deaths, an average of 1300 per month. There were 346 mass shootings.

There are more mass shootings in America than in any other country in the world.

There are twice as many suicides by gun in America as homicides, and suicides are a leading cause of death in America (see chart). More than a third of women who commit suicide use a firearm; over 55% of men use a firearm.

Firearms and Gun Control

The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban (FAWB), signed by then President Clinton, outlawed 19 types of military-style assault weapons. A clause directed that the ban expire in 10 years unless Congress specifically reauthorized it, which it did not.

Going back to 1982, more semi-automatic handguns have been used in mass shootings than semi-automatic rifles, like the AR-15. However, the AR-15 has been used in five of the six deadliest mass shootings in the last six years in the U.S.

Under federal law, one must be 21 to buy a handgun from a firearms dealer. Eighteen year-olds can buy an AR-15.

Gun laws and their effective enforcement vary from state to state. There is a 3-day waiting period in Florida to purchase a handgun, but no waiting period to purchase an AR-15 -- the weapon used in the MSD High School mass shooting on February 14, 2018.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Act) of 1993 mandated that Federal Firearm Licensed (FFL) dealers run background checks on their buyers.

In 1998, the FBI launched the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) “to instantly determine whether a prospective buyer is eligible to buy firearms.”

Background checks are only required if a firearm is purchased through an FFL, which includes retailers and some individuals. Background checks are not required if a firearm is purchased online, through a gun show, or through some private sales. A recent estimate is that 22% of sales take place in this way. Some states (including Washington) have passed new laws expanding Brady background checks to all gun sales.

Mental illness in and of itself is not necessarily a disqualifier for firearm purchases. Furthermore, reporting on mental illness by states to the NICS is voluntary, and spotty.

Washington Gun Laws

Washington gun laws require a 5-day waiting period before purchasing handguns. No such waiting period is required for semi-automatic rifles, such as the AR-15.

A current bill before the Washington Senate, SB 6620, would require the same background check procedures to purchase semi-automatic rifles as is currently required for handguns, and would raise the age for purchase to 21.

The Washington Senate passed SB 5992 on February 27, 2018, banning bump stocks, an accessory that allows semi-automatic rifles to simulate automatic fire.

In 2016, Washington voters approved Initiative-1491, Extreme Risk Protection  Orders. It is now  7.94 RCW. It temporarily prevents individuals who are at high risk of harming themselves or others from accessing firearms by allowing family, household members, and police to obtain a court order when there is demonstrated evidence that the person poses a significant danger, including danger as a result of a dangerous mental health crisis or violent behavior.I-1491 passed 70% to 30% state wide, but by narrower margins in the 4th Congressional District. WA is currently one of only five states to have adopted such “red flag” laws.

In 2014, Washington voters approved I-594 by a vote of 59% to 41%, Universal Background Checks for Gun Purchases. The measure applies currently used criminal and public safety background checks by licensed dealers to all firearm sales and transfers, including gun show and online sales. The measure was defeated in the 4th CD, 42% to 58%. An opposing measure, I-591, which would have prohibited the restrictions imposed under 594, was defeated state wide, but approved 56% to 44% in the 4th CD.

Lack of Data and Research Impede the Development of Comprehensive Strategies to Reduce Gun Violence

In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress in effect banned research on gun violence by cutting the CDC’s funding by the exact amount that was used for gun-related public health research at that time. In 2015, a GOP-led panel blocked a proposal within the House Appropriations Committee that would have reversed the ban.

The newly passed Omnibus Spending Bill H.R. 3354, says the CDC can't use taxpayer funds to promote gun control, but also states the CDC can still conduct research. It remains to be seen whether funding for such research will be provided.

The government’s antipathy towards gun violence research has cast a pall over topic as a health issue. In relation to mortality rates, peptic ulcers are researched more than gun violence. Gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least funded cause of death after falls.

Without better data on guns, gun owners, gun deaths, gun injuries, the nexus of mass shootings and mental illness, guns and gangs, the “gun culture,” and any number of other factors, the explosion of proposals for curbing gun violence that come after yet another incident of carnage is essentially shooting in the dark.

What We Know

Too many states, and some federal agencies (e.g., military) fail to submit records to the FBI’s NICS that establish someone is prohibited from owning a firearm under current law, either due to criminal history or adjudicated mental illness.,

Universal background checks appear not to be enforced aggressively in some states (including Washington). Eleven states and the District of Columbia have adopted universal background checks.

Straw purchase of firearms is a significant source for illegally acquired firearms, defeating the purpose of background checks.

Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides, and perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have a history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization (their illness has not be adjudicated). Thus, databases, such as the NICS, intended to restrict access to firearms and established by firearm laws that broadly target people with mental illness will not capture this group of individuals.

States with right-to-carry (RTC) concealed handgun laws have seen an increase in violent crimes by 13 to 15 percent within 10 years of the law’s enactment.

The Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, H.R. 38, passed on Dec 6, 2017, amends the federal criminal code to allow a qualified individual to carry a concealed handgun into or possess a concealed handgun in another state that allows individuals to carry concealed firearms. Rep. Newhouse (R-WA4) was a co-sponsor.

Twenty-three states have adopted “stand your ground” laws since Florida implemented its law in 2005. A study released in 2016 showed that the implementation of Florida’s stand your ground law was associated with a 24.4% increase in homicide and a 31.6% increase in firearm-related homicide.

Washington State law (RCW 9A.16.060), includes a “Castle Doctrine,” which permits the use of deadly force under certain circumstances, e.g., against intruders, but is limited to real property, such as one’s home, yard, or private office; there is no duty to retreat.

Monday, April 9, 2018

How can I explain the perception of an aeai to a biological intelligence?

N .K. Jivanjee, a Generation Three Aeai, attempts to explain to Najia Askarzadah, a biological being, how to think of a sentient artificial intelligence ("aeai"), in Ian McDonald's extraordinary novel, River of Gods: August 15, 2047 -- Happy Birthday, India.

How can I explain the perception of an aeai to a biological intelligence? You are separate, contained. We are connected, patterns and levels of subintelligences shared in common. You think as one thing. We think as legion. You reproduce. We evolve higher and more complex levels of connection. You are mobile. We are extended, our intelligence can only be moved through space by copying. I exist in many different physical spaces simultaneously. You have difficulty believing that. I have difficulty believing in your mortality. As long as a copy of me remains or the complexity pattern between my manifestations endures, I exist. But you seem to think that we must share your mortality so you must exterminate us wherever you find us.*
*Aeais higher than level 2.5 (able to pass the Turing test and imitate humans) are banned, and their destruction ("excommunication") is the responsibility of "Krishna Cops."

Friday, October 13, 2017

Make America Fail Again

Issue: Consumer Protection — Dodd-Frank Repeal

House Republicans voted June 8, 2017, to repeal Dodd-Frank financial regulations. The House approved the Financial Choice Act, which scales back or eliminates many of the post-crisis banking rules. Rep Dan Newhouse (R-WA4) voted for the Act.


Following the financial crisis of 2008, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to “promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end ‘too big to fail,’ to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes.”

Dodd-Frank called for a host of new regulations and regulatory and watchdog agencies, including the Financial Stability Oversight Council, the Office of Financial Research, and the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

Dodd-Frank also included the so-called Volcker Rule, which prevented government-insured banks from making risky bets with investments. The rule stems from the 1933 Glass-Steagall act, which separated commercial banks from investment banks in order to protect people’s bank accounts from risky investments. It also created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which insures bank deposits. Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999 under Bill Clinton.

Among other things, the Financial Choice Act:

— repeals the Volcker Rule, which prevents government-insured banks from making risky bets with investments

— deletes a requirement that retirement advisers put their clients' interests ahead of their own

— undercuts the authority of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

— exempts payday and car title lenders from any regulation

— eases “stress test rules” designed to ensure bank liquidity

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The right of the people to peaceably assemble

Donald Trump’s diatribe against NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem is the height of hypocrisy. Trump recently pardoned Joe Arpaio, found guilty of criminal contempt for violating the 4th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Arpaio trampled the significance of our flag in the desert sands of his Arizona “concentration camps.”

As appalling as Trump’s pardon of Arpaio is, the growing likelihood that Trump conspired with Russia to swing the 2016 election his way, is a traitorous repudiation of the very foundations upon which our Republic is based, and over which our flag flies.

I stand for the National Anthem. I proudly fly my flag. My respect for the flag, inculcated in me over my 20 years of military service, is based on what the flag stands for — the values, and beliefs, and behaviors that we share as Americans. One of those values is an abiding respect for the Constitution, under which, “the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition for a redress of grievances,” is protected.

Where was Donald Trump when the American Flag flew over the battlefields of Vietnam — on the sidelines. Go there now, Mr. Trump, and hear the petition of the aggrieved.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Republicans Rush to Kill More Americans

Yeah, yeah, I know. The headline is inflammatory. Exemplary of "Yellow Journalism." The difference is that in their rush to pass a "repeal and replace" healthcare bill before their "budget reconciliation" waiver expires September 30th, Republicans are demonstrating once again that they could care less about how many Americans will die because of inadequate healthcare. So, the end result of what the Republicans are doing is, in effect, killing Americans.

Republicans can use a special “budget reconciliation” procedure to advance repeal legislation with 50 votes only until the end of September. So they’re going full speed ahead and "damn the submarines," or in this case, regular order, reasoned dialogue, CBO analysis, and the health of the American people.
According to the Washinton Post, "The latest Obamacare overhaul bill gaining steam on Capitol Hill slashes health-care spending more deeply and would likely cover fewer people than a July bill that failed precisely because of such concerns. What’s different now is the sense of urgency senators are bringing to their effort to roll back the Affordable Care Act, with only a dozen days remaining before the legislative vehicle they’re using expires.”

The bill penalizes states that expanded Medicaid (read “Blue States”) giving them less money, while giving more money for states that didn’t (read “Red States”). Cut could be anywhere from 35% to 60%. Washington State could be cut over $3 billion.

The bill once again attacks the Affordable Care Act's “essential health benefits,” provision, the baseline services insurers must cover. "That means there will no longer be a rock-solid prohibition on charging higher premiums to people with preexisting medical conditions, although states would need federal waivers.”

The Graham -- Cassidy (Bill Cassidy, R-LA) bill basically puts governors in charge of doling out healthcare. As of 2016, 34 states were run by Republican governors. And Republicans control both the House and Senate in 32 states. So, we can see where Americans’ healthcare is headed if this bill passes.

Speaker Paul Ryan said he would bring the bill to the House floor without plans for a conference committee, and before a full CBO analysis. Why? Because this is all about politics. Candidate Trump picked up the Republican "repeal and replace" mantle and has lambasted republicans for not getting it done. He knows it's red meat for his base, and Republicans want the "win" for the president and the Grand Old Party. If millions of Americans lose coverage (32 million by some counts), and millions die because they lack access to healthcare, so what? They're dying anyway as a result of hurricanes and other extreme weather events that aren't due to human-caused climate change.