Sunday, October 24, 2010

"public goods: things ... that everyone wants and nobody is prepared to pay for"

--- Nice definition of public goods from James Astill in The Economist's special report on forests, 25 Sep 2010; this quote from the article "Money can grow on trees"

Quote in context:

Yet in the national accounts the clearance is recorded as progress. About a quarter of Indonesian output comes from forestry, agriculture and mining, all of which, in a country more than half-covered in trees, involve felling. But this is bad accounting. It captures very few of the multiple costs exacted by the clearance, which fall not so much on loggers and planters but on poor locals, all Indonesians and the world at large.

The Indonesian exchequer, for one, is missing out. Illegal logging is estimated to cost it $2 billion a year in lost revenues. But that can be fixed by policing. A bigger problem is that most of the goods and services the country’s forests provide are invisible to the bean-counters. Many of them are public goods: things like clean air and reliable rains that everyone wants and nobody is prepared to pay for. And where they are traded, they are often undervalued because their worth or scarcity is not fully appreciated.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

"we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion"

--- David Eagleman, opinion column Beyond God and atheism: Why I am a 'possibilian', New Scientist, 27 September 2010

Excerpts, quote quote highlighted below:

Given these considerations, I do not call myself an atheist. I don't feel that I have enough data to firmly rule out other interesting possibilities. On the other hand, I do not subscribe to any religion. Traditional religious stories can be beautiful and often crystallise hard-won wisdom - but it is hardly a challenge to poke holes in them. Religious structures are built by humans and brim with all manner of strange human claims - they often reflect cults of personality, xenophobia or mental illness. The holy books of these religions were written millennia ago by people who never had the opportunity to know about DNA, other galaxies, information theory, electricity, the big bang, the big crunch, or even other cultures, literatures or landscapes.

So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion. Given this, I am often surprised by the number of people who seem to possess total certainty about their position.


I don't think the important goal should be to fight for a particular story in the absence of strong evidence; it should be to explore and celebrate the vast possibilities.


This is why I call myself a "possibilian". Possibilianism emphasises the active exploration of new, unconsidered notions. A possibilian is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind and is not driven by the idea of fighting for a single, particular story. The key emphasis of possibilianism is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space. It is a plea not simply for open-mindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas.


In every generation, people are seduced by the idea that they possess all the tools they need to explain the universe. They have always been wrong. From consciousness to dark energy, we know that we are missing an unknowable number of pieces of the puzzle. This is why in the debates between the strict atheists and the fundamentally religious, I choose a third side. A little less pretence of certainty and a little more exploration of the possibility space.

As Voltaire put it, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd."