Thought For The Day – Black Friday – 23rd Nov 2021

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Black Friday seems to have started early this year. Technically it’s this Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, but my inbox seems to have been full of deals all month. But do you know why we shop? The sociologists think it’s because we fear death. Shopping keeps this fear at bay, because it’s distracting. Buying stuff makes our reality feel more substantial, and buying cool stuff wins us approval from our peers, which makes us feel really alive. Read More

Thought For The Day – Acedia – 19th Aug 2021

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Scotland is Top of the European league! Unfortunately it’s for drug deaths. And this week, we’re back at the top of the UK charts for alcohol-related deaths too. There are lots of people injecting drugs all the time, for diabetes, or fertility treatment, but we direct our disapproval at those who break the law, regardless of the tragic stories behind the statistics. And in some ways that’s right: if we didn’t disapprove of law-breaking, it would become normal, and the law would cease to work. Read More

Thought For The Day – The Galloway Hoard – 23rd Jun 2021

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I took my kids to see the Galloway Hoard at the weekend. Of course once they’d seen the gold jewellery they were totally bored: but I was transfixed. Given that the pinnacle of my detectoring was the discovery of 3 rusty nails, a bottle cap and a corroded 2p, I find it amazing that the detectorist in this case found a 1000 year old hoard worth 2 million pounds, and worth immeasurably more to our understanding of Scottish history. Read More

Thought For The Day – St George – 23rd Apr 2021

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It’s St George’s Day today. I’ve often wondered what the patron saints do for each other’s birthdays. Does David take George some daffs, while Patrick plays the harp, and Andrew pours him a whisky? As a Scot born here but from English stock, and having lived both sides of the border, I’ve always felt a bit weird about St George, and a bit alarmed at all that flag-waving. St George seems to have been a Roman soldier, but it’s not very clear why he’s a saint, or why he’s England’s patron saint. Most of us probably know him best for his dragon-slaying. Read More

Thought For The Day – The Repair Shop – 4th Mar 2021

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Someone witty has spotted the similarity between online meetings, and attending a séance: Elizabeth, are you there? We can see you, but we can’t hear you. Can you hear us? Funnily enough, last time there was a boom in seances was almost exactly a hundred years ago, after the 1918 flu pandemic. It seems that a national brush with mortality makes the veil between life and death feel so thin that people want to try to contact those they’ve lost. Read More

Thought For The Day – Baby’s First Christmas – 8th Dec 2020

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Judging from all the carefully cocooned Christmas trees walking past my window trailing gleeful children, I’d say a lot of people are getting their trees early this year. Any why not? In such a bleak year, when we’ve been confined in large part indoors, it feels appropriate to dress the house and to celebrate the start of the end of this dreadful saga.
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Thought For The Day – Walking Back to Happiness – 13th Oct 2020

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It’s the 40th anniversary of the creation of the West Highland Way, the first trail of its kind in Scotland. It starts in Milngavie and heads north for 96 miles, following old cattle drover routes and military roads. It winds past Loch Lomond; through Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe; before skirting Ben Nevis to finish by the Sore Feet statue in Fort William.

In a normal year, more than 100,000 people walk part of the trail, staying overnight in the villages en route. When I walked it, we survived an all-day deluge on Rannoch Moor, and had to wear midgie hats to make it safely into Kingshouse. To pass the time, my sister taught me to Address the Haggis, while I taught her tramping songs. Read More

What is morality if the future is known?

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In the movie Arrival a linguist learning an alien language gains access to a consciousness that knows the future. Unlike our consciousness, which runs from cause to effect and is sequential, theirs can see the whole arc of time simultaneously.Their life is about discerning purpose and enacting events, while ours is about discerning good outcomes and deploying our free will and volition to those ends.

In Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, on which the screenplay is based, this is explained theoretically with reference to Fermat’s principle of least time. This states that the path taken by a ray between two given points is the path that can be traversed in the least time. Lurking behind this idea is the realisation that nature has an ability to test alternative paths: a ray of sunlight must know its destination in order to choose the optimal route. Chiang has his protagonist muse about the nature of free will in such a scheme: the virtue would not be in selecting the right actions, but in duly performing already known actions, in order that the future occurs as it should. It’s a bit like an actor respecting Shakespeare enough not to improvise one of his soliloquies. Read More

Robot Dread

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I sense a morbid fear behind our catastrophizing about androids, which I reckon is to do with a loss of autonomy. It’s true that for periods in history tribes and people have assumed they have no autonomy, life being driven by the fates or by a predetermined design or creator, so this could be a particularly modern malady in an era that luxuriates in free will. But concern about the creep of cyborgism through the increasing use of technology in and around our bodies seems to produce a frisson of existential dread that I have been struggling to diagnose. Technology has always attracted its naysayers, from the early saboteurs to the Luddites and the Swing Rioters, and all the movements that opposed the Industrial Revolution, but this feels less about livelihoods and more about personhood. Read More

Thought For The Day – The Veil of Ignorance – 25th Aug 2020

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Schools are all over the news just now, not just about mask-wearing, and how to be fair to students after this year’s disruption; but arguments over the recent exam results have got more of us thinking about the algorithms that influence our lives.

For some people, algorithms are by definition unfair, because they’re sets of rules which computers have to follow to the letter. Of course many religions and philosophies use rules-logic, like Thou Shalt Not Kill, or The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number. But rules-based morality begs big questions about the biases of those writing the rules, and aren’t flexible enough to deal with exceptions, as we saw with the anomalies produced in exam grading. Read More