Sunday, 31 March 2019

In March Greg Colburn spoke about Effective Altruism (EA) which is about doing the most good possible. The movement began in 2017 and uses a scientific approach with a heavy research element. Intuition is not always the most effective indicator.

Greg showed a chart indicating the number of years of healthy life (measured using DALYs) you can save by donating $1,000 to a particular intervention to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. The chart shows figures for four different strategies. The cost effectiveness in ascending order was: antiretrovirals, preventing transmission in pregnancy, condom distribution, and education for high risk groups. A fifth option, surgical treatment for Kaposi’s Sarcoma, can’t even be seen on this scale, because it has such a small impact relative to other interventions. And the best strategy, educating high-risk groups, is estimated to be 1,400 times better than that.

To take part in an EA study one must first choose a focus area and determine: How Important, How Tractable (soluble) and How Neglected Is this area. This is known as the ITN framework.

Global Health and Development is a tractable problem involving millions of preventable child deaths. See Animal suffering is neglected – tens of billions farm animals are raised each year, not always in the best of conditions. Risks to humanity Greg considers important are: Nuclear war, Artificial Intelligence and Pandemics.

Other areas to be considered include: policy reforms, mental health and happiness; tobacco; prevention of traffic accidents, particularly in the third world; US criminal justice reform; international migration and trade policies; wild animal suffering; and global priorities research.

To be involved in Effective Altruism you can work directly for a cause; choose a career with secondary EA benefits; influence funding of suitable schemes; affect opinion; or give money directly, either by a donation or a regular commitment from income (Earn to Give). Greg considers 10% of annual income not unreasonable but accepts that people in below average salaries should pay much less.

Greg’s own EA path began by giving what he could then started reading EA blogs. He quit his research job to start a business on climate change and studying to be able to do direct work on the EA staff. He donated the profits from his business and began a new project, an EA Hotel in Blackpool.

EA companies include Open Source Ecology which is developing industrial machines that can be made for a fraction of commercial costs, and sharing their designs online for free.  ALLFED is working on planning, preparedness and research into practical food solutions so that in the event of a global catastrophe we can respond quickly and save lives and reduce the risk to civilization.

Greg used his own money to set up the EA Hotel in Blackpool which now provides a low cost hub for EA start-ups and study. People can stay for free if they commit to working on EA full time. It is limited to the UK but  is inspired by the Chelsea Hotel in New York which housed writers and artists paying in kind. 

One project supported by the Hotel is RAISE, Road to Artificial Intelligence Safety.

Greg also talked about Media coverage, the risks involved in the project and the next steps in the enterprise. 

Sunday, 3 March 2019

A Rational Christianity?

In February the Reverend Phil Edwards talked to the Stockport Group about "A Rational Christianity?" beginning by saying that it is important to understand one another. 

He is confident of evolution and that creationism is ill conceived. Plenty of biologists hold religious beliefs and have no difficulty reconciling science and belief in God. He himself has a background in Physics and has joined a Science and Religious forum which holds annual conferences. He had a gap year in which he studied the relationship of science and theology.

His talk was in three sections: what religious belief is about; what science is and rationality; and conflicts between religion and science.

Many Christian sects focus on Jesus and the New Testament.  The theologian Mark Higton of Durham University says religion is about making sense of things. Theology has developed over centuries and he sees this as a strength.  Unquestioning faith leads to fanaticism. Christians get their theology from scripture, tradition and reason. Later theology takes culture into account. The Bible is a difficult book and can be dangerous. It can be read as a fundamentalist view of the world on the one hand or a great work of literature on the other. There is a middle view that, by a coming together of divine view and that of writers, it is possible to tease out what God is saying.

Biblical criticism provides important insights into Jesus Christ. The truth does not depend on the accuracy of the stories but on the validity (whatever that means). There is lots of symbolism in the Bible. E.g. In St John’s gospel water is turned into wine, in the old testament there is the Tower of Babel. There are numerous other examples.

Science explains things but there are many forms of rationality and different kinds of knowledge. People like Richard Dawkins reject supernaturalism.  Descartes made a distinction between mind and body but that brought another set of problems. You can apprehend God in all things and there is Imminence in all aspects of creation. People have huge difficulties with miracles. David Hume defined them as a violation of the laws of Nature which needs to have law-like regularity.

Some things like the weather can be unpredictable and at the subatomic level we have the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Can god tweak the world at that level?  If he needed to tweak the system he wasn’t a very good Creator. God’s purposes are redeemed through the processes that science discovers such as evolution, therefore there is no dualism.

Perhaps God acts as an information exchange – an influence in terms of complex systems. He rejects  interventions such as answering prayers. The Natural world is created by God with potential for evolving  - bringing about  the natural processes of the universe.  Even though someone prays for healing they usually still go to the doctor.

During the Q and A session which followed the Rev Phil Edwards admitted to being somewhat agnostic and to sharing many humanist ideas.