Friday, 1 April 2011

The Beast From The East

Liberating Libya

All the usual protests have emerged from the anti-war movement in recent weeks: our motives may be no better than theirs, intervention will only incite more animosity among East-West relations, there are worse dictators about. I want to challenge the validity of each of these, and moreover, to suggest that they function only as distractions from the really important issue.

UN Motions and US Motives

Doubtless, there are strategic advantages to Libyan intervention which make it a favourable target for military intervention. The first thing to note is that it has the 10th largest oil reserve in the world, and has one of the largest GNP per capita in Africa. Most of Libya is Sahara desert, and the vast majority of its small population lives at or near the coast, making it easily accessible both in trading and military terms. It's also sandwiched between the Middle East's two newly revolved democracies, Tunisia and Egypt, so a regime change would help to create a band of young democracies, with newly formed strong ties to the West; for these reasons it serves as a potential lynch-pin in the Middle East.

For all these reasons, among others, we might be skeptical of any Western involvement (or equally, we might be elated, depending on our perspective). But since we're assessing motives and incentives: what about the dictator's own? Firstly, the colonel receives some support among sympathisers for having accepted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in December 2003 - despite this being a matter of weeks after the US invasion of Iraq, and despite his continued attempts to get hold of nuclear weaponry for the preceding 31 years. In December 2003, the idea that the world's primary superpower was toppling regimes because they had nuclear weaponry was still a popular one, so I shouldn't need to spell this out any clearer.

Gaddafi was never elected into power, but took control by means of a coup d'état in 1969, just ten years after Libya's oil reserves were originally discovered. Oil production - now and then Libya's main, almost sole export - was just about to peak, as shown:


Is it too brusque to suggest that Gaddafi's own intervention might have been inspired by the wealth and power which comes with oil? Is there not something unctuous about this man?

So What Does Gaddafi Spend His Money On?

Despite Libya's respectable GDP per capita, the majority of its citizens are forced to live in abject squalor. At the beginning of his reign, Gadaffi nationalised and socialised the economy, completely abolishing the private sector. As a result, the eastern half of the country slipped into poverty; it is possible that this state of affairs could exacerbate an already vitriolic rivalry between the eastern and western regions of Libya. The Gaddafi family lives in opulence.

Throughout Gaddafi's reign, most of his wealth has been spent on funding terrorist programs against Western countries. Gaddafi was connected to the Berlin Discotheque bombing of 1986 (an action which led to a retaliatory massacre by the no-less-ghastly Ronald Reagan) and funded the IRA from 1982-1987, providing semtex, flamethrowers, Kalashnikovs and a plethora of other arms and ammunitions.

When the treasury began to run dry in 2003-2004, Libya opened more than 40 embassies with other countries to stimulate its economy. Part of these newly formed international relations involved buying weaponry (a standard practice for a Middle-Eastern state) from Russia. In February this year a Libyan transport plane was reported to have visited a military stockpile in Belarus, one of Europe's last remaining authoritarian outposts.

A 2004 report from the Chemical Weapons Convention verified that Libya owned 23 metric tons of mustard gas and a further 1,300 metric tons of precursor chemicals.

Gaddafi funds both foreign and domestic aggression by means of hiring mercenaries. In 1987, an offensive into neighbouring Chad was launched, sparking an ethnic conflict which would later lead to genocide. Most of the soldiers in Gaddafi's army were mercenaries hired from Pakistan and poor Sahelian countries. Again, in March and April 2011, the Gaddafi loyalist forces have been comprised mainly of Serbian and Ukrainian mercenaries, massacring protesting Libyan citizens.

A Brief History of Crime

When Gaddafi assumed power in 1969, he instigated a nationalist form of socialism, dubbing his regime the "Third International Theory" (does any of this sound familiar?). Shari'a became the official doctrine of the state, and alcohol and gambling were outlawed. Dissenters, as well as deserters, were imprisoned without trial. Many were hung in public stadiums and broadcast on television. Death squads, composed of revolutionary committees, were formed in order to hunt and kill dissenters.

Gaddafi's entire reign has been tainted (if such a malodorous monstrosity can be tainted) with racism; despite the existence of Berber tribes in Libya, Gaddafi has always refused to recognise the Berber presence. Persistent Persecution of Jews - religious and racial - has caused the Jewish demographic of about 36,000 to almost entirely dwindle, largely through emigration.

In 1996, nearly 1,200 prisoners were massacred in Abu Salim prison at Colonel Gaddafi's command, as a punishment for demanding fair trials and palatable living conditions.

Most notoriously, 270 people (259 on board and 11 on the ground) were killed over Lockerbie due to a bomb that Libyan-backed terrorists had planted on an aeroplane. Gaddafi is also suspected in connection with the bombing of UTA flight 772 in 1989, which cost the lives of a further 171 people.

In 1987 the Islamic Legion began a series of regular raids across the Libya-Chad border, and stationed 2,000 troops in Darfur. The resultant conflict and trauma escalated into a genocide, with around 9,000 lives lost. Many members went on to form Janjaweed, a genocidal organisation that has ranked up a murder toll with estimates ranging from 19,500 to 400,000 losses.

The 2011 protests had resulted, by february 2007 (long before any UN, US or NATO intervention, and when Libya was just one Middle Eastern country among many facing protests) in a death toll of more than 400, as the Libyan military was opening fire on rioters. On March 21st, civilians were being used by the loyalists as human shields.

Let us not forget that this ogre is only in power in the first place, by means of a usurpation; so, even had all these acts been moral and legal, he would have had no mandate to any of them.

Hopefully, this is enough to put to bed the notion that Gaddafi is not nefarious enough. It should also be plain that, regardless of what opportunism may underline western motives, Gaddafi's motives were no more deserving. However,

Won't This Increase Animosity Between Us And Them?

There's a current of non-interventionalist thought, not worth overlooking, that the populations in the region view western states such as the US and UK as hypocritical, hamfisted, bloodthirsty and oilthirsty. This is not unjustified, as the henious records of men like Reagan, Kissinger and Clinton will testify, as well as the ongoing US support for Israel's crimes against Palestine.

On the other hand, Gaddafi isn't popular in the region either, and our failure to act may easily (and justifiably) be interpreted as support for him.

Firstly, the Arab League already cut its ties to Libya, declared the regime illegitimate and requested a no-fly zone over the country. This is not an insignificant act.

Secondly, there's a newly formed democratic administration on either side of Libya, which shows that the zeitgeist among the region's populations is shifting, as they begin to favour western ideals.

Thirdly, Gaddafi's relations with the surrounding countries have never been endearing. Continually refusing to recognise Israel as a state, and calling for its destruction, Gaddafi has vetoed any attempts at diplomatic relations between the two countries. At the Arab League summit* in 2009 Gaddafi was petulant toward King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia; he maintains poor relations with Tunisia and Morocco. Back in 1971, near the beginning of his reign, Gaddafi attempted to merge Libya with Sudan, but president Nimeiry declined, saying: "He has a split personality -- both parts evil."

With those common complaints put to bed, then, I think there is a bigger issue at stake here:

Democractic Progress in the Middle East

Since Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, there has been a not inconsiderable domino effect of uprising in the region:


January 14: Tunisia revolts, and declares Fouad Mebazaa president.
February 11: Egypt revolts, and Suleiman announces Mubarak's resignation.
February 23: Bahrain leaders free political prisoners to pacify protestors.
February 24: Algeria lifts the state of emergency, to appease the population.
March 9: King Mohamed VI promises Morocco constitutional reforms.
March 10: Saleh promises constitutional referendum.
March 13: In Oman, legislative power is delegated to people outside the royal family.
March 14: King Abdullah of Jordan sets a 3 month deadline on constitutional reforms.
March 15: The government of the United Arab Emirates agrees to greater media transparency.

It is true that various less promising events have occurred, such as imprisonment of, or violence toward, protestors in several countries. The unrest so far has consisted of a tug-of-war between oppressed peoples demanding dignity, liberty and security, and states trying to maintain their authority. Some states - such as Morocco - have been frequently violent; some - such as Bahrain - have been consistently oppressive. But only one state has been consistently, frequently brutal toward any attempts to challenge its regime, and that is Libya.

So here's what it all pivots on: if outside forces fail to act, Gaddafi will crush the rebels, set an example to the Arab world, and the domino effect in the Middle East will doubtless cease. The prolongation of theocracy and despotism will be indefinite.

Alternatively, we can set the example ourselves: that there is hope for revolution, and these struggles have not been and will not be in vain. Just as Gaddafi learned in December 2003 to abandon his nuclear weapons program, the regimes of Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Syria can now learn to treat protests with care.

As Philippe Legrain put it: "whatever happens in Libya in coming weeks, don't forget Gaddafi vowed to slaughter people of Tobruk & Benghazi house by house."

Some Further Objections

"Western nations only invade states when they want oil"
"Western nations only support dictators when they want oil"

The mutual cancelling of these complains should be obvious enough; apparently, anything we can possibly can only be done out of a desire for oil. So, it makes no difference whether we intervene or not, there will still be those claiming that we are simply exploiting the nation.

Either of these claims might be easier to defend, were it not for the fact that, in March 1982, an embargo was placed by the US on government on all Libyan oil. This no-trade policy continued, in effect, until 2004, when Gaddafi's terrorist project began to lack funds, and then new embassies were opened between Libya and the West.

If the objective here were oil, why would 32 years have passed with no action from the US? Why would they wait until the embassy were open? Why not invade in late 2003, when there was no trade and no embassy - particularly given that many claimed the invasion of Iraq was oil-motivated (and not without good reason; the original title for Operation Iraqi Freedom was "Operation Iraqi Liberation").

"Libya is the military soft touch of the Middle East"

Again, this leaves too many questions untouched: why didn't we invade it in 2003? Libya's military credentials have never been as strong as Iraq's and particularly so in 2003, before Libya opened its embassy with Russia (whence it acquires most of its military stock).

"Why leave it until now?"
"Why not one of the worse dictators?"

This is another set of cancelling complaints. Do we really have to draw up a league table of dictators? Fine then; with a couple of exceptions aside, most despots don't rise straight to the top of the league table. Particularly in Gaddafi's case, it has taken the accumulation of years and years of smaller atrocities. By the time his track record reaches the status of one of the worst, he's already been in power for almost four decades. Given the consistency of his thuggishness, ought this man be given any more mitigation?

"Aren't the rebels' motives questionable too?"

Well, arguably. The original protests in Libya were calling for the emancipation of Ferthi Tarbel, a lawyer banged up for his activism regarding the 1,200 massacred in Abu Salim. These 1,200, it should be noted, were members of a militant Islam group; but this is a tenuous link at best. The protesters were rioting and throwing stones, but stones don't compare to war-planes. In the worst case scenario, then, we have one proven radical-theocratic dictator at war with a group of possibly radicals. If this does turn out to be an Islamist skirmish, all the more need for UN presence, to ensure that the victorious regime is nothing too extreme.

Here's the most valid complaint, straight out of the mouth of an oppressive dictator himself:

"Wherever it is appropriate, [the US and its allies] stand with despotic rulers ... and when necessary, they sacrifice them to ensure their own interests" - President Ahmedinejad of Iran

I will grant Ahmedinejad this claim, because it's patently true, and shameful. So we have two choices: continue to stand with dictators, or not. And hopefully it has been illustrated that the Western motives can't be explained away, this time, in terms of oil.

A slightly more refined charge is that the US & co. only stand with dictators as long as they remain stable. This may well be true, and is consistent with the current case.

So, let's give the people of the Middle East an incentive to destablise their dictators.

Alot of the anti-war movement, I think, is motivated by a kind of knee-jerk reactionism; "the West has made too many mistakes in the past". But our mistakes run both ways; our failure to intervene in Rwanda and Bosnia is no more admirable.


* And here is a further point about motives: it may be suggested that Gaddafi's attempts at uniting Africa have been somehow progressive. But he did not simply want a United States of Africa; he presumed the title "King of Kings", and nominated himself "leader of the Arab leaders" and "Imam of the Muslims". To me, "progressive" seems like too generous an accolade.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

A Problem You Can't Define

There is some disagreement, particularly pertinent in the recent debates about whether science conflicts with religion, about what kind of things constitute, or determine, a truth. Leaving aside the debate about the existence of intangibles, most people still accept at least two kinds of truth: empirical truths - that is, the true statements about the facts of our world - and truths by definition - that is, statements which are true purely by virtue of what they mean. It is the latter notion which I wish to discuss.

Most people agree that logical truths, such as

(1) all cats are cats

are true by definition. It does not matter what goes on in the world around us, they say; "all cats are cats" is true under all possible circumstances, and we know this just so long as we know the meanings of the words.

There is some problem with ambiguous terms which may be misleading; suppose that, in the first instance of the word "cats" we are just saying it the way Keith Richards says it, and in the second use we are talking about felines, then our statement will be false. Obviously if a word can have more than one meaning, then we need to know which meaning it has in the context.

This lead some theorizers to suggest that it is not the words (as in the sounds or symbols), but the concepts which they represent, which are to be the constituents of truths by definition. This seems more intuitive but it isn't particularly explanatory, as "concept" is just used the same way as "unit of meaning", and we need some notion of what meaning actually is. We'll come back to that later.

So how can a definition generate a truth such as in statement (1)? Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz proposed a fundamental cleavage of "truths of reason" and "truths of fact"; that the former class were true of all possible worlds, and the latter only of our own. Logical truths, therefore, were necessary, whereas factual ones were just contingent. But how are we to test which things are true of all possible worlds, when we can only observe this one we are in? Saul Kripke's notion of necessity suffers the same paucity of information; and it is this question that the idea of "analytic" truths - that is, truths by definition - was supposed to answer. [1] [2]

Immanuel Kant proposed that an analytic truth was one in which the predicates are contained within the subject. So for instance, in

(2) all bachelors are unmarried

"unmarried" is contained within "bachelor". W.V.O. Quine pointed out that this suffers two major flaws. Firstly, it is not particularly explanatory, because we don't have a way of finding out whether a subject contains a predicate; worse, the word "contain" is surely metaphorical in this instance. In short: what does it mean for one concept to contain another, and how are we to find out whether it does in any particular instance? [3] [4]

The second problem is that we cannot apply this to statements such as

(3) either it is raining or it is not raining

in which we do not simply have the form "[subject] is [predicate]"; we rather have the form "([subject] is [predicate]) or ([subject] is not [predicate])". If such statements are analytic, then Kant's explanation will not do; and if they are not, then analyticity fails as an explanation of logical truth, at least within non-Intuitionistic logics. Furthermore, surely nobody claims that (3) was not true before the invention of language? If it had been false factually, would it still have become true analytically upon the invention of languge? If so, what is the use (or even the sense) of linguistically generated truth?

It has been suggested, alternatively, that a truth-by-definition is a statement the denial of which entails a contradiction. This is no better, however, because a contradiction is surely just a falsehood-by-definition. How do we test whether two concepts contradict each other?* And what does that mean exactly?

How do we know that a predicate is implicit within a subject? Statement (2) is of the form "(all A are B)", so its analyticity is not formally explicit. What we need is definition, because this gives us a means of transforming non-logical truths into logical truths* (and vice versa). For instance, if we can define "bachelor" as unmarried man" then we can show (by substitution) that "all bachelors are unmarried men" is synonymous with

(4) all bachelors are bachelors

and so we have a logical truth. We need, therefore, to do two things: (a) to show that logical truths such as "all A are A" are analytic, and (b) to show that definition can function without presupposing the analyticity of logical truth.

(a) Definition: The first problem is that not all terms can be explained in terms of definition, because the last term would have nothing in terms of which to be defined. This is known as the problem of the status of the primitives: if the last term is empirically understood then its meaning is uncertain, and so must be everything which is explained in terms of it. In natural English there are a vast plethora of such terms; within an artificial language, Rudolf Carnap managed to get it down to the word "is". Nonetheless, there must always be one such term, and so, the rest of the class of statements belonging to the language can be on no firmer ground than this undefinable term. [5]

(b) Definition prior to logical truth: The second problem is that we have some sort of circularity. Consider Carnap's notorious example of how to stipulate a "truth by definition" (or in his word, "convention"):

(i) For every x, y and z, if z is the result of putting x for "p" and y for "q" in "if p then q", and x and z are true, then y is true.

This tells us that if we have a true conditional statement with a true antecedent, then the consequent of the conditional is true. Suppose we already know:

(ii) z is the result of putting x for "p" and y for "q" in "if p then q", and x and z are true

then we can infer

(iii) y is true

but only if we use the logic of "if-then". The fourth English word of (i) is "if" and the fifth from the end is "then"; we know that given (i) and (ii) we can infer (iii), because we understand the English expression "if_then_". But this understanding is not provided by (i); rather it must be presupposed by it, in the sense that we can only understand the import of (i) if we already understand the notion if-then. More generally, the statement of definitions cannot be what determines logical truths or logical relationships, because it is only by virtue of logical relationships that logical truths or relationships are derivable from them.

Beyond this, we have another, simpler problem with definition. The fact that we are able to stipulate a definition (such as "every mare is a horse") by no means demonstrates that we have created a truth. What would stop Darwin from stipulating that

(5) species arise by means of evolution

is a definition? In other words: when somebody makes an assertion, what distinguishes it as the creation of a truth by definition, rather than merely as the (true or false) expression of a fact?

We are no closer, then, to finding some way of determining whether a predicate contains a subject, or whether two terms are interchangeable within the right context. What we need is some clear notion of meaning itself.

a) John Stuart Mill suggested that the meaning of a proper name is its reference. Consider:

(6) Morning Star
(7) Evening Star

These terms are co-referential, but do they mean the same thing? Gottlob Frege notes that the discovery that they are one and the same was one of astronomy, not analysis of the meanings of the words; so we cannot accept reference as an explanation of meaning. [6] [7]

b) It is not extension, because

(8) centaur
(9) unicorn

are alike in extension but differ in meaning, and

(10) creature with a heart
(11) creature with a kidney

may also turn out to be co-extensional, even though they differ in meaning.

c) It is not nomination because

(12) "8"
(13) "the number of planets"

name the same abstract entity, but are not synonymous; and conversely because, as noted in the case of (1), a word can have more than one meaning.

d) Meaning is not a phenomenological state, because we may be in different phenomenological states and yet still understand each other. Consider

(14) My uncle became a lawyer yesterday

Two speakers may picture entirely different things when they think of "uncle" or "lawyer" or "yesterday", and yet still altogether understand each other. Some predicates such as "clever" seem to have no corresponding imagery whatsoever. There may be associated imagery, but this is unimportant. There is imagery associated with nonsense-syllables.

e) It is not interchangeability salva veritate. The statements

(15) 'Mare' has four letters
(16) 'Female horse' has four letters

have different truth-conditions. Even excluding the special case of quotation: in an extensional language, the truth of a statement will always depend on the extension of the referents, and not merely on their meaning; in an non-extensional language, we have the same problem with (8) and (9). We might, in a non-extensional language, get a sufficient criterion by prefixing the assertions with some modal term. Consider:

(17) Necessarily, every creature with a heart is a creature with a heart
(18) Necessarily, every creature with a kidney is a creature with a heart
(19) Necessarily, every bachelor is an unmarried man
(20) Necessarily, every unmarried man is an unmarried man

This would seem to give us a criterion of meaning, because (17) and (18) differ in meaning and are not interchangeable; (19) and (20) are alike in meaning and are interchangeable. This might seem to complete the project, if only we could get an explanation of the term "necessarily", but as we saw earlier, no such explanation which would allow us to assert the interchangeability of (19) and (20) has yet been forthcoming.

It may be the case that two terms are synonymous if neither they nor any pair of compounds respectively including them differ in meaning. For instance, (8) and (9) are co-extensional while

(21) Picture of a centaur
(22) Picture of a unicorn

are not, so we get a difference in meaning. However,

(23) Female horse
(24) Mare

are co-extensional and so are

(25) Picture of a female horse
(26) Picture of a mare

so we get a synonymy. If this serves as a criterion for synonymy, then we can build around it a notion of analyticity and necessity.


(27) description of a female horse
(28) description of a mare

differ in extension.

(29) "female horse that is not a mare"

is an example of (27) but not of (28). By this argument, it seems no two terms will ever be synonymous.

Equally, cases (29) and

(30) "mare that is not a female horse"

show that Kant's notion of containment cannot be maintained.

Perhaps we can salvage some notion of meaning from the more specific notion of synonymy (or sameness-of-meaning). So how do we test statements for synonymy?

Peter Strawson and Paul Grice suggested that "two statements are synonymous iff any experience which, on certain assumptions about the truth values of other statements, confirm or disconfirm one of the pair, also, on the same assumptions, confirm or disconfirm the other to the same degree". But this suffers a similar setback to Liebniz' attempt; how can we test a proposition against all experiences? [8]

A suggestion is that two terms of synonymous if they stand for the same Essence or Platonic Idea. This is not much help, as we do not know how to discover whether they do so.

Another suggestion is that two terms are synonymous if they stand for the same mental image. Nelson Goodman notes that "It is not clear what we cannot and cannot imagine. Can we imagine a man 1,001 feet tall? Can we imagine a tone we have never heard?" [9]

A further suggestion is that two predicates P & Q differ in meaning iff we can conceive of something which satisfies P but not Q. What exactly does it mean to conceive something? We can define a five-dimensional body, although we cannot imagine it. But by this criterion we can conceive of a square circle. It might be contested that "square circle" is inconsistent; this leads us around in an obvious circle, however, for the reasons explained near the start of this essay.

Synonymy might be explained in terms of possibility. Two predicates P and Q are synonymous iff there is nothing possible that satisfies P but not Q. However, if we know that all things satisfy (10) and (11), we no longer regard it as possible that there exists something which satisfies (10) but not (11). Proponents of the possibility criterion may protest that there is a non-actual possible which satisfies (10) and not (11). However, it is difficult to accept that there is an entity which we know cannot be actual (because (10) and (11) are co-extensional) yet still retains the status of being possible. Furthermore, this seems to confound the meaning of "is" or "exists" altogether; if an entity is non-actual, then in what sense does it exist?

How are we to determine when there is a non-actual possible for some collection of predicates? It cannot be by testing whether "is P and ~Q" is consistent; because as long as P and Q are different predicates it will be logically self-consistent, and we have no means of determining whether it is otherwise consistent. In fact this latter question amounts to asking whether P and Q are synonymous, so we have come full circle. Hilary Putnam made an attempt to salvage the notion by suggesting a "one-criterion" notion of synonymy, but Jerry Fodor points out that "criterion" is on no better a footing. Furthermore. if a criterion is merely a condition for verification, then we have the same problem which confronts Strawson and Grice. [10] [11]

In conclusion, unless we can get some proper explanation of "meaning" which is not circular and does not rest upon equally dubious terms, let alone of "truth purely by virtue of meaning" then we will not have an adequate basis for supposing that any of our commonly accepted laws of logic, such as "1=1" are analytic. We will simply have to accept that they are facts about our world, and as such they should be treated as scientific theorems.


* Alonzo Church proved that there is no algorithmic means for determining, in arithmetic, whether "x = y", where x and y are arithmetical expressions. Quine claims that it follows that there can be no general means of testing for contradictoriness. [12] [13]


[1] Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz (1714) - "Monadology"
[2] Saul Kripke (1980) - "Naming and Necessity"
[3] Immanuel Kant (1781) - "Critique of Pure Reason"
[4] W.V.O. Quine (1951) - "Two Dogmas of Empiricism"
[5] Rudolf Carnap (1928) - "Der Logische Aufbau der Welt"
[6] John Stuart Mill (1843) - "A System of Logic"
[7] Gottlob Frege (1982) - "The Basic Laws of Arithemetic"
[8] Peter Strawson and Paul Grice (1956) - "In Defense of a Dogma"
[9] Nelson Goodman (1949) - "On Likeness of Meaning"
[10] Hilary Putnam (1983) - Two Dogmas Revisited"
[11] Jerry Fodor (1987) - "Psychosemantics"
[12] Alonzo Church (1936) - "An Unsolvable Problem of Elementary Number Theory"
[13] W.V.O. Quine (1953) - "On What There Is"

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A Nonexistent Mystery?

The question "why is there something rather than nothing?" has vexed philosophers, theologians and the laity for as long as the history of discourse dates.

Physicist Victor Stenger notes that there is no reason to suppose "nothing" any more likely than "something". To illustrate the point he presses: "Current cosmology suggests that no laws of physics were violated in bringing the universe into existence". [1]

Heat tends to break down the more complex structures of matter into something simpler. Throughout most of the universe, energy is rather more sparse than it is here on earth. Stenger notes that under such conditions, complex structures would tend to last for a much longer period of time, until energy eventually took its toll on matter. Simpler structures tend to be of higher energy and therefore less stable, until they transform into more complex, lower-energy structures. We should be reminded of the second law of thermodynamics: The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum. Stenger suggests that, since "nothing" is the simplest of structures, and has the lowest entropy, it is unsurprising that it could not last forever. Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek concluded, then, that the answer to our question is that "'nothing' is unstable". [1] [2]

We might argue, however, that all of these arguments beg the question. Aren't the laws of physics inferred from the behaviour of the universe itself? And it's debatable whether we can rightly describe "nothing" as having any properties, let alone those of entropy, structure or simplicity. Maybe we are not strictly speaking of "nothing" but only of "nothing physical" or "nothing spatio-temporal" or something similar, which would seem to put us on safer footing. While we're dealing in abstractions, then, let us turn to another proposed answer to our question*.

Phrased succinctly within predicate logic, our next answer goes:

1. | ¬∃x(x=x)
2. | ∀x¬(x=x)
3. ¬¬∃x(x=x)
4. ∃x(x=x)

In English:

1. Suppose that there doesn't exist some thing which is equal to itself.
2. Then, for all things, it is not the case that those things are identical to themselves.
3. Abandon our original hypothesis, then, because it leads to a contradiction.
4. Therefore, there exists some thing which is equal to itself.

The force of this argument is that it claims "Something exists" to be a logical truth; many would claim that, therefore, it is necessarily true by virtue of its meaning**.

It might still be protested that this argument begs the question. It assumes three inferential rules, and it assumes (in dismissing the hypothesis) that self-identity must exist in all things.

The boundless opportunity for making this same style of counter-argument ought to expose the folly of the whole question "why is there something rather than nothing?". If any kind of answer we can give must either be false or circular, then surely we have grounds to dismiss the whole enquiry as a pseudo-question.


* I am told that this formulation owes to W.V.O.Quine, but I heard of it through a friend Martin Castro-Manzano, who I should duly credit here.
** This I believe to be a mistake; but that is an issue for another post.


[1] Victor Stenger (2007) - "God: The Failed Hypothesis"
[2] Frank Wilczek (1980) - "The Cosmic Asymmetry Between Matter and Antimatter", Scientific American 243, no. 6, p82-90

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Something You Can Sink Your Teeth Into

Even for those who don't care about the suffering of other species, there's still an overwhelming case to be made against funding the meat industry.

1. Ariable land - the Food and Agriculture Organisation finds that around 90% of deforestation owes to intensive farming and related practices. Livestock production accounts for about 30% of the world's land surface area. Peter Singer (1975) calculates that, if every human ate as much meat as the average American, we'd need 5/3 as much land as the planet can offer. [1] [2] [3]

Free range industries consume more land than intensive industries, acclerating the rate of species extinction. [4]

2. Waste - all animals burn off thermal energy, and so inevitably produce less energy than they consume. For every 8 pounds of protein a pig consumes, it produces 1 pound of protein; for every 21 pounds of protein a calf consumes, it produces 1 pound of protein. [5] [6]

Lester Brown (1974) of the Overseas Development Council estimated that if Americans reduced their meat consumption by 10% it would free up a staggering 12 million tons of edible grain per year - enough to feed 60 million people. Don Paarlberg, a former US secretary of agriculture, claimed that halving the US livestock industry would save enough edible nutrition to feed the nonsocialist developing countries four times over. [7]


Each pound of steak costs the equivalent of 2,500 gallons of freshwater, 5 pounds of grain and a gallon of gasoline. John Robbins (2001) estimated as many as 12,000 gallons of water. More than half of the US water supply is used for livestock. John Farndon (2009) set the figure at 20,000 litres, and estimated that a fifth of the world's freshwater would be needed for a fifth of the human race to eat a quarter-pounder weekly. Meat, more generally, requires about fifty times as much freshwater as the equivalent amount of wheat. [8] [9] [10] [11]

3. Environmental damage - the United Nations (2009) estimated that the livestock industries are responsible for 51% of world greenhouse gas emissions.

An article by the United Nations (2006) asserted: "The livestock sector is...the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, 'dead' zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems, emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others."

The local livestock industry accounts for around half of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions. [12]

4. Economic impact - the meat industry is ridiculously subsidised*. Economist Nick Louth (2008) estimated that by 2030 everybody in the UK would need to be vegan to prevent a recurrence of economic recession as oil stores are further depleted. [13]


5. Effects on the consumer - vegetarians tend to live longer than meat-eaters**. [14] [15]

Nutritionists are with increasing frequency beginning to recommend vegetarianism: Dr. T. Colin Campbell, nutritional researcher at Cornell University and director of the largest epidemiological study to date, states “The vast majority of all cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and other forms of degenerative illness can be prevented simply by adopting a plant-based diet.”

Many of those who give up meat also report an increase in energy and libido. Vegetarians are less likely to become impotent; Studies have found that meat-eaters rank 13% lower in testosterone than vegans do. [16]

6. Effects on the labourer - the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, annually, nearly one in three slaughterhouse workers suffers from illness or injury, compared to one in 10 workers in other manufacturing jobs. The rate of repetitive stress injury for slaughterhouse employees is 35 times higher than it is for those in other manufacturing jobs.

Multinational Monitor called Tyson Foods one of the world's "Ten Worst Corporations" because it hires people in the U.S. who are too young to work legally; the same year, Decoster Egg Farms appeared on the list. Secretary of Labour (at the time) Robert Reich said "The conditions at this migrant farm site are as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatship we have seen"***. [17]

In conclusion, it is not necessary to debate whether animals "matter" in this nuance of moral discourse; the case can be made purely on philanthropic grounds.


* This argument doesn't stand in the case of large meat exporters, such as the USA and Australia. The American Meat Institute claims that it generates 6% of the country's gross domestic product. However, for each pound of meat exported from one country there is a pound imported to another; and when fuel reserves are so diminished as to hinder world trade, the importers will have to find a way to make do without the meat, and the exporters will have to suffer the drop in revenue. This is already a problem in several countries; intensive-rearing corporations move in, sell their cheaply produced meat at a lower tariff and kill off the local agricultural industry. When the parent countries suffer economic troughs, as in recent years, the client countries are left starving and dependent. [18] [19]

** Of the five studies, only the one by Gary E. Fraser overtly demonstrates a causal link between vegetarianism and lifespan. Similarly, there are a plethora of studies showing correlations between vegetarianism and high intelligence quotients, and between meat consumption and violence toward other humans, but the causal links have not been conclusively established.

*** Another entry on the same list was Smithfield Foods, a hog slaughtering plants, having received the largest Clean Water Act fine to date. Rarely a year goes by without a meat-producing corporation appearing on one of these lists for some atrocity or another. [17]


[1] World Rainforest Movement (1998) - "What are the underlying causes of deforestation?"
[2] Alternet (2009) - "13 breathtaking effects of cutting back on meat"
[3] Peter Singer (1975) - Animal Liberation
[4] Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United States - "Cattle ranching is encroaching on forests in Latin America"
[5] Folke Dovring, Scientific American (Feb 1974).
[6] Frances Moore Lappé (1971), pp.4-11
[7] Boyce Rensberger, New York Times (October 25, 1974)
[8] As calculated by Alan Durning of the Worldwatch Institute.
[9] Science News (March 5, 1988), p153
[10] John Farndon (2009) Do You Think You're Clever? p136
[11] G. Borgstrom (1973) pp.64-65
[12] Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, New Zealand - "Voluntary green house gas reporting feasability study"
[13] Andrew Sullivan (2010) - "Daily Dish"
[14] American Journal of Clinical Nutrition - "Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies"
[15] Gary E. Fraser (2001) - "New Adventist Health Study research noted in Archives of Internal Medicine"
[16] Allen NE (July 2000) - "Hormones and diet"
[17] Multinational Monitor (1997) - "Multinational Monitor's 10 Worst Corporations of the Year"
[18] American Meat Institute - "The United States Meat Industry at a Glance"
[19] Multinational Monitor (2008) - "The System Implodes: The 10 Worst Corporations of 2008"

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The War on Movement

The politics of fear is more relevant to the current social climate than most people realise: the primary motive for generating panic is that it tends to attract voters to the right wing [1] [2] [3]. This is not a bona fide proof that such panics are unfounded, of course - but it ought make us a little more skeptical.

Let's consider one of the key debates which might, in modern times, be said to separate the left from the right: immigration. I'll focus, for now, on that which current legislation already attempts to restrict.

1. The Illegal Population: There are an (upper-bound) estimated 8,000,000 illegal immigrants in Europe (as of 2007); some 800,000 more joining the population every year [4].

2. Black Markets: there are many of those who still come and work, yet have no rights. They are made to work in unsafe conditions and payed well under the minimum wage; their bosses may fire them on a whim, and leave them homeless and starving, with no legal protection. Further: Those working on the black market do not pay tax; they still take jobs but provide no public revenue.

Many unauthorised Immigrants have to employ criminal gangs of people-smugglers. People smuggling generates $20 billion (£11 billion) pa in USA, a black market second only to drugs [5].

3. The Economic Benefits of Immigration: it is a principle tenet of Smithian capitalism and monetarism (which the critics of immigration are usually quick to defend) that labour-movement between economies must be as free as capital-movement. Less skilled workers are scarcer in affluent countries; immigration is usually to richer countries, providing labor [4] [6] [7].

The weak argument is often advanced that immigrants are "stealing our jobs"; well this is obviously not so. To increase the population is to increase the demand as well as the supply, and thus, create a new job for each one which is taken. In fact, labourers in rich countries tend to be more productive (due to better technology and a richer infrastructure) [4].

The Journal of Development Economics estimated that the world economy could as much as double from completely unrestricted migration* [8]; more recently, World Development estimated the benefits to be around $55.04trillion [9].

4. The Cost of Border Controls: so what does it cost to keep immigrants out? The Spanish city of Ceuta is only 11.5 square miles in area, but the Spanish government has invested an incredible £200million in keeping Morocco out (not that it has worked) [4] [10].

The cost to the migrants themselves is somewhat more grim: United has documented nearly 9,000 deaths caused by Europe's border policies between 1993 and March 2007 [4]. The Economist estimates that around two thousand people drown annually in the Mediterranean, on their way from Africa to Europe [11].

Proponents make unfalsifiable claims: when original predictions about the war on immigration were falsified, George Bush claimed that more money, technology and resources (raising number of border patrollers to 18,000 between 2006 and 2008, and sending 6,000 national guard to the borders in the meantime) were needed. But funding had quintupled (to $3.8 billion) since 1993, and triple the size of the border control, without a noticeable change in illegal immigraton influx.

5. In conclusion, I might say that illegal immigration is indeed a problem, but that the problem is with the illegalisation, not the immigration.


* Between 1892 and 1924, during the period in which it rose to financial superiority, America processed 5,000 migrants per day. Around a third of modern Americans can trace their ancestry to these migrants [5]. Let us also not forget the means by which the other two thirds got there.


[1] New Scientist (2010) - "Stranger danger at heart of racial bias"
[2] David Straker (2010) - "Political conversion?"
[3] A perfect example of using fear to generate conformity is Mr. Cameron's quotation in paragraph 8: MSN News (2010) - "Tories attack 'eccentric' Lib Dems"
[4] Philippe Legrain (2007) - "Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them"
[5] New York Times (13 June 2004) - "By a Back Door to the US"
[6] Noam Chomsky (2006) - "Failed States"
[7] Dan Cryan and Sharon Shatil (2009) - "Introducing Capitalism"
[8] C.Hamilton and J.Whalley (1984) - "Efficiency and distributional implications of global restrictions on labour mobility"
[9] Jonathan W.Moses and Bjorn Letnes (2005) - "The economic costs to international labour restrictions"
[10] World Press - "Ceuta, the border fence of Europe"
[11] The Economist (6 October 2005) - "Decapitating the Snakeheads"