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Category: interviews (page 1 of 2)

Do we have free will?

I recently interviewed professor of neuroscience Thalia Wheatley for an episode of Talk the Talk, but at the tail end of the interview, I threw her a curveball and asked her about free will. I’ve been trying to understand this for a long time. Do we choose something, or does our brain just… do it? And if it does, what does that mean?

Here’s that part of our conversation.

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If you want some prep, here’s a video of Thalia with actor Alan Alda.

The rest of our interview will be appearing in an episode this August. Watch for it!

Do we need forgiveness?

Here’s some audio from a forum I was invited to be a part of at Wesley Church a little while ago. It’s between me and pastor Nigel Gordon, with Paul Whitfield doing a fine job as moderator.

It was called “Do we need forgiveness?

My take: We don’t need forgiveness from a god. We need to get forgiveness from each other, and try to become more aware of the consequences of our actions. And if the god of the Bible is real, he needs to beg forgiveness from all of us.

One thing about this discussion has stayed with me: Nigel keeps comparing the debt of sin to the debt of money. But I don’t think sin is the same as money. When I sin, does a little pile of stuff appear somewhere, and it has to be taken away? Or is it something else? What is the form of this ‘sin’, and why does it need to be dealt with? And why would god killing himself accomplish this?

Why wouldn’t god just forgive everyone? Why would he need to (in Matt Dillahunty’s words) need to sacrifice himself to himself as a loophole for a rule that he created?

It’s all very arcane, and when I try and clarify this beyond the vague details, Christians talk in circles. It’s a metaphor that you could probably accept if you don’t think about it too deeply, but when you start to unpack it, it makes no sense. Yet this pile of mush is the very heart of Christianity.

Pre-debate interview: “Where Do I Come From?”

Before the big fight, there’s always a session where the fighters get together and talk some trash. Well, that’s what we did today on RTRfm — it was me and Rory Shiner talking about the upcoming debate at Wesley Uniting Church in Perth. Except there wasn’t any trash talk, and we didn’t smash (very many) chairs over each other. I did, however, make a pointy point. Here’s the interview.

Where Do I Come From?

The point I made was this: Christianity says that it’s good at answering the question of “Why are we here?” But it isn’t! Their answer for the purpose of life is terrible, and it makes no sense.

If you can make it, do. This was between me and a Christian; throw the Hindu guy into the mix and I don’t know what will happen. There may be twice as much babbling, which means I’ll have to try and make twice as much sense.

Dan Everett on atheism

I got to interview linguist Dan Everett last week for an episode of the ‘Talk the Talk‘ podcast.

He’s well-known for his work with the Pirahã people, and we talked about the implications of their language for linguistic theory. But the Pirahã people also served as a catalyst for his deconversion from Christianity, as he has discussed in this video from Fora TV.

So after all the talk about language, I got to ask him about atheism.

– – – – – – – – – –
Daniel Midgley: I’m just curious about atheism. As an atheist myself, I liked reading about your deconversion, but I think that must have been a really difficult time for you.

Dan Everett: Yeah, it was a very difficult time for me. I mean, I was raised with a complete apathy towards religion, and would have considered myself an atheist until I was about 17, when I had a dramatic conversion experience in San Diego in the 60s. And that was very useful; it got me off drugs and other things I was doing that I shouldn’t have been doing. And I met a family who had been missionaries in the Amazon for many years. That got me interested in the Amazon. And when you become a missionary, not only is your faith a personal thing, but it becomes a very public thing. You are being supported financially to do something based on what you say you believe. You’ve raised your family a certain way. So now suddenly to say, “Oh, wait, I don’t believe this stuff anymore,” it causes friends who’ve been giving money to you to help you do this work, and your family — it produces all sorts of trauma. Even when you would rather that it not do that, but at some point you have to say, “I don’t believe this stuff anymore for a number of reasons, and I can’t be dishonest and pretend that I do. I have to just say that I don’t, and take the consequences.

DM: It’s really hard to come out. I had not quite the same experience, but I used to be a Mormon, and I did the whole two year mission that they do. And there’s something about when you feel like you have to say that you believe something, it becomes very difficult — when you’re very much invested, it becomes very difficult to deconvert, I think.

DE: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. And so you would know from your Mormon background almost exactly what it was to go through this huge social pressure, and a lot of people that you like very much.

The other really interesting thing is there is no… I’ve never found a social equivalent to church for atheists. I mean, we don’t get together on a regular basis and sing songs and take care of each others’ children and have potlucks, because atheists don’t share beliefs. They just don’t believe something. And so we don’t have the same positive unifying force as people who share beliefs. And so once you do make that decision, you lose a certain social network that you had before, that, whatever it was based on, was psychologcally supportive. So there are a number of pressures that don’t involve threats that keep people believing, even when their inner brains tell them, “This doesn’t make any sense.”

DM: Do you think humanism could fill in the gaps somewhere?

DE: I’d like to think that it could, but I think that many of us who are atheists are pretty independent-minded anyway. So it’s difficult. I belong to a couple of humanistic societies, and I get their newsletters, and I’m encouraged by what they do, but they don’t have any particular events that look like a lot of fun that I’d like to go to. But I do enjoy the symphony and I enjoy going to concerts and things like that, so those things have to become church to me.

DM: Do you identify with the New Atheism crowd, Dawkins and Myers and skeptics like that?

DE: My view of Dawkins’ book in particular is that … somebody wrote me one time and said “I suspected that Dawkins was an atheist, but I just didn’t realise that he was an amateur atheist!” And my view is that… I respect what they’re doing. I think that, you know, my favourite writer in this regard is Christopher Hitchens. But at the same time, I don’t think that people have done a very good job of trying to understand the cultural meaning that people find in the social attraction in religion, and why really really intelligent people can be religious. I think that just to say that this is all stupid, and anybody who believes this stuff is an idiot… you know, I can see the appeal in saying something like that, but it doesn’t really give a satisfying explanation to me. So while I think there need to be writings trying to lay out the case against theism and why it can be a very negative force, I think we have to do it with understanding and compassion in a way that I haven’t really seen in much of the New Atheism writing.

DM: I think one of the approaches that a lot of people take is that we need a multiplicity of approaches — we have people that, you know, mock and ridicule because that fires up the base and it can shake some people, but then we also have the ‘nice atheists’ who understand what it was like to be maybe a fundamentalist and can approach things a little more gently.

DE: Yeah, as I say, even having said what I just said about the need for more compassion I still find Christopher Hitchens’ work to be absolutely hilarious and wonderful to read and he just brings so much wit to the process. But still, it’s got to be aggravating and I don’t know who it would convince if they believe fervently the other way. So I agree. There needs to be a multiplicity of approaches, and among other atheists, I don’t need to hold back my opinion of theism, but when I’m with… you know, I have people that I love and respect very much who are strong believers, and I don’t hold back — I tell them what I think — but at the same time it would never occur to me to insult them because they believe differently than me.

DM: I tend to say: I respect people but I don’t respect ideas.

DE: Yeah, I agree with that. I completely agree with that. It’s just that sometimes people that we respect hold ideas that we hate. And so we have to speak to those ideas. And there are some times when there’s just no way to be diplomatic about it. So if I say, you know, “I don’t believe in God, and Jesus is not my saviour,” well, that’s what I believe and there are some people who are going to be offended by that no matter how nice I try to say it, but that is the bottom line.

DM: Sometimes you have to say, “I’m not going to sugar-coat this for you. That’s how it is.”

DE: I agree with that, too. Yeah, there are times you just have to say it. My grandkids come up to me, and they say, “Are you afraid of going to hell?” And I said, “No, I’m not.” But I said, “You don’t need to be afraid about it either, because even if there is a hell, you didn’t send me there. I make my own decisions, and I’ll have to deal with it when I die. But I don’t believe I’m going to such a place.”

DM: How do the other family members feel about that?

DE: They’ve become pretty understanding of me nowadays. I mean, it was hard initially for a number of reasons because I made the announcement of my atheism, and that was a very strong contributing factor to my divorce, and the divorce in itself was traumatic, so there’s a lot of stuff going on. But right now they’re all quite understanding of me, and they tolerate me. More than tolerate; they love me as their father, but you know, I don’t bring these things up all the time. Sometimes sitting around at one of my daughters’ homes, their sons will ask me or daughters, you know, what do you think about this? And I don’t lie and I don’t hold back.

DM: I found that my linguistics kind of informed my atheism in a way. Like I used to be a literal Tower-of-Babel believer on some level, even if I never thought about it very much, because I was kind of a literalist, like a lot of Mormons, I think.

DE: Uh-huh.

DM: Did your linguistics factor in?

DE: In a different way. My linguistics factored in for two reasons. One, it was teaching me how to think scientifically. And two, it brought me into contact with other people who were thinking scientifically. It gave me a different social crowd. And I realised that I admired this crowd more — that people who reasoned, however imperfectly, in a scientific way, seemed to be more interesting people than people who did not reason in a scientific way, the people who simply based everything on what they interpreted a book written a couple of thousand years ago said. So it was very appealing, and also I didn’t like all the rules and regulation of religion, to tell you the truth. I was very happy to be able to think for myself about what I thought morality should be, and what I can and can’t do.

– – – – – – – – – –
The rest of this interview will appear on an upcoming episode of ‘Talk the Talk’.
[ Subscribe on iTunes | TtT home page | Facebook ]

Unintentional MLK quote mangling on Facebook

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Mark Twain was supposed to have said that. But I can’t be sure — Mark Twain has been credited with all kinds of sayings that he may not have said. (Note the lazy “attributed” appendage to that last link.) But it’s true that with the increased speed of communication on the Internet, a mistake can spread worldwide and not get picked up.

A case of misattribution might have popped up on your Facebook wall, in light of a recent assassination.

Jessica Dovey did not intend to become the epicenter of an Internet-wide discussion about the nature of quotation, attribution, and Osama bin Laden. Yet that’s exactly what happened when Dovey’s Facebook-status sentiment — “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” — became entangled with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote she also posted. Within a day and through no fault of her own, Dovey’s words had gone viral, misattributed to King.

Since I’m the language guy, I got a call from RTRfm 92.1 to comment. Here’s the playback.

If you’re serious about avoiding the misattribution trap, don’t believe a quote unless it’s accompanied by a source, and then follow the source. It’s the only way to be sure.

Homer, Ill makes English (and discrimination) official.

For this week’s Talk the Talk, the leadership of Homer, Illinois caught my attention. They’ve made English their official language.

Homer Township officials acknowledge illegal Immigration hasn’t been an issue in the municipality of approximately 30,000 people. And documents for the township about 35 miles southwest of Chicago have always been printed in English with no requests for other languages.

But the township’s board passed a resolution without opposition Monday making English its official language.

So why did they do it?

[Steve Balich, the township’s clerk and the resolution’s author] said the opposition to the Arizona law has troubled him and that he believes illegal immigrants burden taxpayers through demands for public services and schools. He hoped the resolution would stimulate more nationwide discussion.

Yes, that’s the Arizona law that

would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Opponents have called it an open invitation for harassment and discrimination against Hispanics regardless of their citizenship status.

Well, you have to admire their honesty. Usually the advocates of ‘English Only’ claim they’re trying to encourage immigrants to learn English (while cutting funds for ESL teaching), or trying to save money by not printing forms in other languages (thus blocking non-English speakers from getting legal or medical help they need). But here, they’re sticking up for the right to harass minorities.

Which is the whole point of English Only in the first place.

Talk the Talk: Artificial languages

Just had a fun interview with Arika Okrent, author of ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘.

I mentioned in the interview that I had a hard time getting excited about yet another fictional language, when so many natural languages are endangered. Wouldn’t it be great if the people behind Avatar had chosen a suitable sounding natural language, instead of inventing Na’vi? I suppose it does no good to complain though — I also think that kids should be memorising stats about real animals instead of Pokémon, but it’ll never happen because real animals don’t shoot fire out their ass.

That said, it was interesting to hear a bit about Esperanto and Lojban. It was also fun to hear some spoken Klingon — yes, Arika is a certified Klingon speaker.

You can check out the interview by heading to our Talk the Talk page on Facebook. Don’t forget to like us!

Spelling bee protesters

I would have liked to compete in the National Spelling Bee as a young scholar. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a sponsor. Nowadays, though, the event is attended not just by logophiles but by protesters. That’s right.

Four peaceful protesters, some dressed in full-length black and yellow bee costumes, represented the American Literacy Council and the London-based Spelling Society and stood outside the Grand Hyatt on Thursday, where the Scripps National Spelling Bee is being held.

Their message was short: Simplify the way we spell words.

Roberta Mahoney, 81, a former Fairfax County, Va. elementary school principal, said the current language obstructs 40 percent of the population from learning how to read, write and spell.
“Our alphabet has 425-plus ways of putting words together in illogical ways,” Mahoney said.

The protesting cohort distributed pins to willing passers-by with their logo, “Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much.”

Spelling reformers are a quixotic bunch. Their devotion to spelling reform is somehow touching, as though they’re unaware that people have pushed for this — going on two hundred years — to almost no effect.

I will admit that English has some arcane orthography, and there are various reasons for that. For one thing, English spelling got more or less locked down just before the Great English Vowel Shift. Scribes represented words according to their dialect, and sometimes they had some funny preferences.

But English spelling isn’t all that bad. A major problem is vowels. There aren’t enough letters to represent all the vowels we use. But double letters allow us to distinguish between vowel sounds: ‘striping’ v. ‘stripping’. The much-maligned silent ‘e’ does its work, too: ‘wan’ and ‘wane’. The letter ‘c’ has two sounds, true. ‘Athletic’ ends with a /k/ sound, and ‘athleticism’ has a /s/ sound in it, but the ‘c’ preserves the relationship between these words that share the same root.

Spelling everything like it ‘sounds’ becomes more complicated when you realise that words sound different in different dialects. Would speakers of Scottish English be hosed in this new future? Whose dialect would get represented? And how does one distinguish homophones like ‘bow’ and ‘bough’ when they also become homographs?

If you want to see how different sound and spelling can become, have a look at French. Despite some reforms, there’s still quite a difference. Final consonants are often elided. ‘En haut’ is pronounced something like ‘ãõ’ — try saying ‘ah oh’ using only your nose.

I suppose one day the divide between English sound and English spelling will become so serious that we’ll have to sit down and make some tough choices. But it’s going to take a while.

Sarcasm detector

Certain pragmatic jobs in language seem so human that we feel like computers could never begin to approach them. Recognising sarcasm is one of these. How could you get a computer to recognise that a speaker is intending the opposite of what their words are saying, particularly if it’s very subtle?

Well, a paper presented at AAAI last week gives details of a project in sarcasm detection. And they didn’t even use tone of voice as a feature — they just used the text from reviews at

Of course, words aren’t enough when you’re recognising sarcasm. We also need real-world knowledge, and an idea of what words to expect in a situation. Let’s say the dentist tells Fred he needs a root canal, and Fred says, “Great.” We know it’s sarcasm because we know that root canals aren’t very fun, and Fred isn’t likely to look forward to it.

We can’t tell that to computers (although some have tried), but we can use other information. For this project, they used the number of stars in the Amazon review. If it was a poor review (one to three stars), the appearance of words like ‘great’ are likely to be used sarcastically, especially if the word “can’t” appears first.

This is what I love about Computational Linguistics. We can get a start on even the hardest problems with a well-crafted experiment. The meaning is already there in the words we use. All we need is that little bit of extra information to tell the system that something extra is happening.

Talk the Talk: Universal Grammar

Next week’s Talk the Talk topic comes to us from the pages of New Scientist.

Many linguists are interested in the similarities between languages. Noam Chomsky once claimed that if a Martian visited Earth and looked at all the human languages, they’d be impressed not by the diversity, but by how similar all human languages are. (Falsify that claim.)

Linguists in the Chomskyan mold have postulated the existence of a Universal Grammar — a set of structural principles that undergird human language. It’s an appealing idea — not least because it could explain how children learn language so quickly, from nada to full sentences in about two or three years. Why so fast? The UG is already in there at birth, and kids will pick up the individual quirks of their native language as they go.

The New Scientist article (PDF) highlights the work of linguists who take a different view. For example, Chomsky felt that recursion was one of the fundamental properties of human language. You can repeat elements of English syntax in certain ways: “My mother’s doctor’s boyfriend’s cat.” No non-human animal communication system has this, and every human language has it.

Except Pirahã. Dan Everett, who’s worked among these Amazonian people for years, says there’s no recursion in Pirahã. You can’t say “My brother’s house”. You have to say “I have a brother. My brother has a house.” And so it goes; the more languages we know about, the more we find that violate these seemingly inviolable constraints.

Is the theory of Universal Grammar falling apart? If language isn’t innate in our human brains, then how do we do it? On the next Talk the Talk.

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