Who Needs God?

An essay by Kenan Malik and shared by Dr. S. Ehtisham.

There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief.
Historically, much of the discussion of God has been about the possibility of God. Christian apologetics grew out of the attempt rationally to defend the possibility of God’s existence, while atheists wanted to show that the idea of God made no rational sense. Much of the contemporary debate is about the consequences of religious belief. The so-called New Atheists, in particular, have been scathing in their attack on what they see as the wicked and malevolent social consequences of faith – from the harassment of gays to mass suicide bombings. I, too, am sceptical of the possibilities of God. And, while I do not think, as many do, that faith is, in and of itself, pernicious, I do believe that there are often social and moral problems that arise from religious belief. What I want to concentrate on today, however, is on the first type of argument. And that is because for me, as it is for many other atheists, this is the primary motivation for my atheism – I simply do not see the necessity for God.
There are three kinds of reasons often given for the necessity of God. First, there is the claim that God is necessary to explain Creation and the maintenance of the cosmos. Second, that God is a necessary source of moral values; that without God we would fall into the abyss of moral nihilism. And third, that without belief in God, there can be no purpose or meaning to life.  Let us look at each of these claims in turn.
The Christian idea that God is necessary for the creation and maintenance of the universe can be traced back to pre-Christian, pagan philosophy, to the Greek tradition, and in particular to Aristotle. Aristotle argued for the existence of a First Cause or Uncaused Cause to the universe. The universe, Aristotle argued, is forever in a state of flux.  Behind every change must lie a cause, and indeed a chain of causes, that brings about that change. But such a chain of causes cannot stretch out for ever because it is impossible to have an infinite regress of causes. The first link in the chain, as it were, was what Aristotle called he Unmoved Mover, the prime cause of all change in the cosmos, but which itself was not caused by anything. This Unmoved Mover Aristotle called ‘god’, not as an entity to be worshiped, but as ‘a supreme and eternal living being’, the most powerful, intelligent and beneficent creative force in the cosmos.
This argument, which came into the Christian tradition via the Kalam school of Muslim philosophy, lies at heart of the first three of Thomas Aquinas’ famous ‘Five Ways’ of proving the existence of God. It is often called the cosmological argument, though strictly speaking this  refers only to Aquinas’ third proof, which was so labelled by Kant. The cosmological argument is of this general form:
1 Whatever begins to exist has a cause
2 The universe began to exist
3 Therefore it has a cause
There are many variations of this general argument. For instance, what is often called the contingency argument, states that
1 Whatever exists must have a cause
2 The universe exists
3 Therefore the universe must have a cause


Activism in the Digital Age: Who Is Technology Leaving Out?

By Nathan Schnider ( Shared by Dr. Syed Ehtisham)

“My main warning for activists is to not be misled by digital metrics, by retweets and reblogs and likes and views.”

Those dumb debates keep happening: Is the Internet good or bad for activists? Does Twitter cause revolutions or not? We know they’re dumb, but we keep having them — which is why Astra Taylor’s new book, “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” is so welcome.
“The People’s Platform” seems to be about technology, and you should read it if you’re interested in technology, but it is actually about what (and whom) technology leaves out. It is about putting technology in its place — by confronting the increasing tendency to cherish freedom of information over the freedom of workers to organize, by refusing to celebrate digital “disruptions” when the cost is paid by the most vulnerable people among us, by questioning the tendency among activists to judge their impact by retweets and likes.
Astra Taylor grew up unschooled, and she has been learning by doing in public ever since. She created two films featuring leading political philosophers, “Zizek!” and “Examined Life.” She helped produce a print gazette for Occupy Wall Street and co-edited the book that came out of it; through Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee campaign, she played a key role in stirring a much-needed national discussion about debt resistance. We caught up to discuss her new book while she’s on the road with the band Neutral Milk Hotel.
*    *    *
Nathan Schneider:As you were writing this book, you were in the midst of activism of your own, including the social media-driven Rolling Jubilee campaign. How did that organizing spur your writing?
Astra Taylor: I wish organizing had spurred it — more like derailed! The book was turned in long past the official due date because I got so swept up in Occupy Wall Street, which eventually led to the Rolling Jubilee campaign — a project that is still ongoing. For those who haven’t heard of it, the Rolling Jubilee buys debts for pennies of the dollar on the secondary market, but instead of collecting it we abolish it. The campaign was indeed driven by social media, though we always envisioned it as one small part of a broader organizing strategy. Our aim was to raise $50,000 in online donations to abolish $1 million of medical debt in order to spread awareness about the shadowy workings of the secondary debt market and the inequity of debt-financing goods that should be publicly provided. However, the campaign went viral before the curtain was even lifted, in part because a famous person shared the announcement on Tumblr. We raised almost $700,000.
Through Occupy and the Rolling Jubilee, some of the shortcomings of social media organizing became even more apparent to me than they already were. Social media is good at amplifying spectacles, but spectacles don’t necessarily amass power. They can be helpful for raising awareness about a cause or shifting the conversation, but there needs to be something left in the wake when the public’s attention inevitably moves on. There’s a real problem with how to capture attention and build on it — that’s one challenge that has kept my comrades in Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee and me up at night.

Ditch the 10,000 hour rule!


By  AND 

Obsessive practice isn’t the key to success. Here’s why;

Here’s a study that may surprise you. A group of eight-year-olds practiced tossing beanbags into buckets in gym class. Half of the kids tossed into a bucket three feet away. The other half mixed it up by tossing into buckets two feet and four feet away. After twelve weeks of this they were all tested on tossing into a three-foot bucket. The kids who did the best by far were those who’d practiced on two- and four-foot buckets but never on three-foot buckets.

Why is this? We will come back to the beanbags, but first a little insight into a widely held myth about how we learn.

The Myth of Massed Practice

Most of us believe that learning is better when you go at something with single-minded purpose: the practice-practice-practice that’s supposed to burn a skill into memory. Faith in focused, repetitive practice of one thing at a time until we’ve got it nailed is pervasive among classroom teachers, athletes, corporate trainers, and students. Researchers call this kind of practice “massed,” and our faith rests in large part on the simple fact that when we do it, we can see it making a difference. Nevertheless, despite what our eyes tell us, this faith is misplaced.

If learning can be defined as picking up new knowledge or skills and being able to apply them later, then how quickly you pick something up is only part of the story. Is it still there when you need to use it out in the everyday world? While practicing is vital to learning and memory, studies have shown that practice is far more effective when it’s broken into separate periods of training that are spaced out. The rapid gains produced by massed practice are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows is not. Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don’t get the rapid improvements and affirmations you’re accustomed to seeing from massed practice. Even in studies where the participants have shown superior results from spaced learning, they don’t perceive the improvement; they believe they learned better on the material where practice was massed.

Almost everywhere you look, you find examples of massed practice: colleges that offer concentration in a single subject with the promise of fast learning, continuing education seminars for professionals where training is condensed into a single weekend. Cramming for exams is a form of massed practice. It feels like a productive strategy, and it may get you through the next day’s midterm, but most of the material will be long forgotten by the time you sit down for the final. Spacing out your practice feels less productive for the very reason that some forgetting has set in and you’ve got to work harder to recall the concepts. It doesn’t feel like you’re on top of it. What you don’t sense in the moment is that this added effort is making the learning stronger.

Spaced Practice

The benefits of spacing out practice sessions are long established, but for a vivid example consider this study of thirty-eight surgical residents. They took a series of four short lessons in microsurgery: how to reattach tiny vessels. Each lesson included some instruction followed by some practice. Half the docs completed all four lessons in a single day, which is the normal in-service schedule. The others completed the same four lessons but with a week’s interval between them.

Interleaved Practice

Interleaving the practice of two or more subjects or skills is also a more potent alternative to massed practice, and here’s a quick example of that. Two groups of college students were taught how to find the volumes of four obscure geometric solids (wedge, spheroid, spherical cone, and half cone). One group then worked a set of practice problems that were clustered by problem type (practice four problems for computing the volume of a wedge, then four problems for a spheroid, etc.). The other group worked the same practice problems, but the sequence was mixed (interleaved) rather than clustered by type of problem. Given what we’ve already presented, the results may not surprise you. During practice, the students who worked the problems in clusters (that is, massed) averaged 89 percent correct, compared to only 60 percent for those who worked the problems in a mixed sequence. But in the final test a week later, the students who had practiced solving problems clustered by type averaged only 20 percent correct, while the students whose practice was interleaved averaged 63 percent. The mixing of problem types, which boosted final test per for mance by a remarkable 215 percent, actually impeded performance during initial learning.

Varied Practice

Okay, what about the beanbag study where the kids who did best had never practiced the three-foot toss that the other kids had only practiced?


Taking on Adam Smith (and Karl Max)


In his new book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (Harvard University Press), Mr. Piketty, 42, has written a blockbuster, at least in the world of economics. His book punctures earlier assumptions about the benevolence of advanced capitalism and forecasts sharply increasing inequality of wealth in industrialized countries, with deep and deleterious impact on democratic values of justice and fairness.

“He is also not afraid of literature, finding inspiration in the descriptions of society in the realist novels of Jane Austen and Balzac. Wealth was best achieved in these stories through a clever marriage; everyone knew that inherited land and capital was the only way to live well, since labor alone would not produce sufficient income. He wondered how that assumption had changed.

As he extended his work on France to the United States in collaboration with Emmanuel Saez, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, he saw that the patterns of the early 20th century — “the top 10 percent of the distribution was full of rental income, dividend income, interest income” — seemed less prevalent from the 1970s through the early 1990s.

“It took me a long time to realize that in effect we were returning slowly in the direction of the previous equilibrium, and that we were part of a long transitory process,” he said. When he started working on the issue in the late 1990s, “there was no way this could be understood so clearly — having 20 additional years of data makes a big difference to understanding the postwar period.”

His findings, aided by the power of modern computers, are based on centuries of statistics on wealth accumulation and economic growth in advanced industrial countries. They are also rather simply stated: The rate of growth of income from capital is several times larger than the rate of economic growth, meaning a comparatively shrinking share going to income earned from wages, which rarely increase faster than overall economic activity. Inequality surges when population and the economy grow slowly.”

A higher than normal rate of population and economic growth helped reduce inequality, along with higher taxes on the wealthy. But the professional and political assumption of the 1950s and 1960s, that inequality would stabilize and diminish on its own, proved to be an illusion. We are now back to a traditional pattern of returns on capital of 4 percent to 5 percent a year and rates of economic growth of around 1.5 percent a year.

So inequality has been quickly gathering pace, aided to some degree by the Reagan and Thatcher doctrines of tax cuts for the wealthy. “Trickle-down economics could have been true,” Mr. Piketty said simply. “It just happened to be wrong.”

His work is a challenge both to Marxism and laissez-faire economics, which “both count on pure economic forces for harmony or justice to prevail,” he said. While Marx presumed that the rate of return on capital, because of the system’s contradictions, would fall close to zero, bringing collapse and revolution, Mr. Piketty is saying the opposite. “The rate of return to capital can be bigger than the growth rate forever — this is actually what we’ve had for most of human history, and there are good reasons to believe we will have it in the future.”

In 2012 the top 1 percent of American households collected 22.5 percent of the nation’s income, the highest total since 1928. The richest 10 percent of Americans now take a larger slice of the pie than in 1913, at the close of the Gilded Age, owning more than 70 percent of the nation’s wealth. And half of that is owned by the top 1 percent

Inequality by itself is acceptable, he says, to the extent it spurs individual initiative and wealth-generation that, with the aid of progressive taxation and other measures, helps makes everyone in society better off. “I have no problem with inequality as long as it is in the common interest,” he said.

But like the Columbia University economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, he argues that extreme inequality “threatens our democratic institutions.” Democracy is not just one citizen, one vote, but a promise of equal opportunity.

The last part of the book presents Mr. Piketty’s policy ideas. He favors a progressive global tax on real wealth (minus debt), with the proceeds not handed to inefficient governments but redistributed to those with less capital. “We just want a way to share the tax burden that is fair and practical,” he said.

Net wealth is a better indicator of ability to pay than income alone, he said. “All I’m proposing is to reduce the property tax on half or three-quarters of the population who have very little wealth,” he said.