Saturday, May 31, 2008

Saturday, May 17, 2008

How to stop spam from free email accounts

If you've noticed an increase in the amount of spam you've been getting lately, it's probably because the captchas for both Gmail and Yahoo mail have been broken recently.

Ye gods, how hard can it be to solve this problem? I gave it five minutes of thought just now and came up with an utterly trivial solution that will completely stop free email accounts from being used for spam:

1. Whenever a message is sent to a recipient that has never received a message from that account before, modify the message to include a link at the top that the recipient can click on if the message is spam.

2. Limit the number of new recipients that can receive email from that account to a few dozen a day.

3. If the number of spam reports from that account exceeds a certain threshold, shut the account down.

4. Require a valid credit card number to set up a new account. Even better, charge $1 for a new account.

Point 4 is going to be somewhat controversial because the email providers will argue that if they do this then people will just use someone else's service. But this is not true. If only the Big 3 (GMail, Yahoo and Hotmail) instituted this policy that would be enough to force everyone else to follow suit. The reason is that spammers would abandon the Big 3 and start using smaller free email providers. Once people realized that a particular provider was laden with spam they would just start filtering out all messages from that provider. Once people with legitimate accounts realize that their messages are being spam filtered they will either pressure their provider to adopt the "credit card captcha" for new accounts, or they will switch to a provider that already uses it.

This would not just make a dent in spam from free email accounts, it would *completely* eliminate it because it would make it unprofitable. A single account could not be used to send out more than a couple of hundred spams before it would be shut down, and creating a new account would be too expensive to make spamming profitable. So the spammers wouldn't even try.

Note that this would not eliminate spam altogether, because spam could still be sent from botnets. But that kind of spam is pretty easy to filter.

Can anyone come up with a reason why this wouldn't work?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Scientific Theology

One of the things that hard-core atheists like Dawkins get wrong IMO is they underestimate the importance of dramatic narrative in people's lives. This is ironic because it is easy to trace this need back to its evolutionary roots. And yet, Dawkins insists, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to deny this simple fact, choosing instead to take the position that acknowledging the power of myth is "condescending."

I believe that at root all humans share an evolved moral intuition whose core features are more or less the same across the entire species. As a result, the divisive rhetoric that tries to separate atheism from other belief systems is counterproductive because it makes people believe that atheism is at odds with their moral intuition, which manifests itself as religion instead of Scientism.

From a practical and political point of view I believe it would be much more constructive and effective for atheism to embrace the proposition that it is a religion rather than positioning itself as the anti-religion. One of the reasons that atheism fails to win more hearts and minds is just that religions have vastly better marketing departments. I think atheists would do well to take a page or two from their books, and that includes the holy ones.

It should come as no surprise to any scientist that there is much that is good in the Bible. If man's behavior is governed by an evolved moral intuition then no book could survive that was fundamentally at odds with that intuition. "Love thy neighbor" and "thou shalt not murder" are really quite fine and dandy ideas, even if they are not the Revealed Word of God.

In fact, because the Bible is an encyclopedic collection of early human thought, it should come as no surprise that there is a lot of wisdom there that goes far beyond these usual moral platitudes. To be sure, there are irreconcilable differences between Science and fundamentalism, but if one leaves even a little room for doubt that every single word in the Bible is literally true (as most people who call themselves Christian do) then there are a lot of opportunities to find common ground.

There is room in a Scientific worldview for the concept of God. Of course, there is no room in the Scientific worldview for God as an extra-physical being, or for the Bible as having any particular standing above any other work of literature. But even within these constraints I think there's a lot of room for reconciliation. Here, then, is a first-draft attempt to construct a literary narrative for atheism, a Scientific Theology.

The core of a Scientific Theology should be an acknowledgement that there are very deep mysteries about our existence, and the very deepest is the manifest asymmetry of every person's perception of reality. The laws of physics are everywhere symmetric, but my perception of reality is radically asymmetric. The laws of physics are the same in all places at all times, but I am here and now. My most basic reality is therefore fundamentally at odds with what is known about the laws of physics, and this naked fact ought to keep Scientists humble about their worldview. There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in Richard Dawkins' philosophy, or yours, or mine.

Let us then take "God" to mean all that is mysterious and wonderful about this existence, starting (but not ending) with the fundamental mystery of existence. This is a Deistic "god". It is not a supernatural being, not a bearded man in the sky. We are created in God's image only in the sense that God and we are both part of the great mystery that is reality. We are made of atoms, but that is not all we are made of. There are a lot of atoms in the universe, but only a few of them are us, and that makes those atoms special. At least part of what makes them special is that they are arranged in very particular patterns. One aspect of those patterns is that some of those atoms are arranged to form brains which are collections of atoms that can process information. This is a truly remarkable and wonderful fact, and what is even more wonderful and remarkable is that brains are actually capable of understanding the natural processes that brought them into being, and in that understanding we are brought closer to God.

Scientific Theology utterly rejects the Calvinist point of view, that we are totally depraved and separate from God. We are part of God and God is part of us. We have (at least the illusion of) free will, and we have knowledge of good an evil. Does it really matter whether the source of this knowledge is an evolved moral intuition or a result of eating the Fruit of the Tree?

Unfortunately, the world is not black and white, good and evil. The world is painted in colors and shades of grey. This is our burden, to make our way in a world where the Way is not clear and cannot ever be clear. The world is complicated. This is what makes it at once wonderful and terrible. We are in fact, as Christian theology says, doomed to fall short of perfection. But the Christian looks at this inevitable failure and turns to Christ. The Scientist looks at it and sees it as a challenge. Our purpose in life is not to serve God, it is to make this world and this life as good as it can be, knowing all the while that it will never be as good as it can be. This is what it is to be human, to struggle against the complexity and ambiguity of the universe, knowing the struggle will never end, victory can never be achieved, but to struggle nonetheless, and then to pass the torch to the next generation to continue the never-ending struggle that is life and death and love and regret and yin and yang and all that makes existence wonderful and terrible. This may not be the way we would want it to be, but that is the way it is. And in the end, life would be very boring otherwise. We are born to engage in this existential jihad. Like it or not, that is the purpose of life.

Scientific Theology should be tolerant of alternative points of view. Not everyone lives a good life. Some people are born into horrible suffering, from disease or abusive parents or material want. We should not insist that everyone squarely face the harsh reality of existence. If someone finds salvation, or even solace, in Christ, it would be cruel to take that away from them. There are real problems with fundamentalism and evangelism and virulent anti-scientific ideas like creationism, but if someone wants to believe that Jesus died on the cross to save them from their sins and doesn't insist that everyone else believe it too, I don't see the harm.

Personally, I see God in all of the information-processing that I don't have direct conscious access to, from my DNA to my right-brain, to all that stuff happening in all those other brains in the world, and now in all those computers in the world. There's an awful lot of thinking going on that is beyond my ken. And every now and then I can communicate with all those other information-processes -- through meditation, through email and blogs, or by looking at the stars or gazing at the ocean. My God is mysterious and powerful and wise and it knows things that I don't, but it is not all-powerful nor all-knowing. My God forms the light and creates darkness. My God inspired the Bible -- and all the other books ever written. My god is familiar and forgiving and sympathetic and vengeful and mysterious and fallible because my god is us.

My God, like any parent, wants His children to grow up eventually. He does not demand prayer and obsequiousness, but if you want to offer up a prayer he's a good listener. Sometimes prayers are answered, sometimes not. But mostly, my God helps those who help themselves. He gave us (via evolution) the wherewithal to make our own way in the world, and wants us to use our faculties to take responsibility for our lives and make the world a better place. He wants us to love each other, because love produces better results than hate. Where love is not possible (and sometimes it isn't) he'll settle for respect.

If this one idea survives me then my life will not have been lived in vain.

Whither free will?

sblinn over on reddit raises an interesting point (particularly since we have a Calvinist lurking out there somewhere):

what does it mean to now have a good working theory of evolutionary morality while not having a good working theory of the free will to exercise it? ... If all we can do is carry out the mechanisms of biology and chemistry, according to our compositions and environmental stimuli, whatever right and wrong are we will still be doing whatever it is this mechanism computes.

There are a couple of answers to this.

First, we are not completely deterministic. At root we are quantum entities. Whether or not quantum randomness actually plays any significant role in our thought processes is not known, but the possibility cannot be ruled out based on our current understanding.

Second, even if we are completely deterministic that does not mean that our actions are completely predictable because of Chaos theory.

Third, even if we were completely deterministic and predictable we somehow have the illusion that we have at least a certain amount of free will. Imagine you get up in the morning and you have to decide whether to wear the red tie or the blue one. Whether or not you actually have free will in your decision, it certainly feels like you do. But there are also clearly things over which we do not exercise free will. You cannot choose to believe that the red tie is actually green, for example. (Well, maybe you can, but I can't.)

A belief in a certain amount of free will, even if in reality it is only an illusion, is a logical prerequisite to morality, and a practical necessity for the functioning of human society. If all our actions are truly out of our control (as the Calvinists would have you believe) then there is truly no reason for morality, because then everything that happens is merely a consequence of the laws of physics or the Will of God or the Hand of Fate (all of which become indistinguishable from each other in that case, by the way). The only reason philosophy (or religion) matters at all is that we each have this sense of self over which we feel like we exercise some degree of control. Absent that, nothing matters. There is no reason to punish murderers, or, indeed, not to become a murderer yourself, because whatever happens is just the inescapable consequence of whatever is out there pulling our strings. Absent free will, there is no more sense getting morally indignant about the Holocaust than about the fact that the sun rises in the morning.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion

... is the title of an excellent and well-informed article by David Sloan Wilson. Some highlights:

It is absurd, in retrospect, that evolutionists have spent much more time evaluating the major evolutionary hypotheses for guppy spots than for the elements of religion. This situation is beginning to remedy itself as scholars and scientists from all backgrounds begin to adopt the evolutionary perspective in their study of religion.


[Large-scale empirical studies reveal that o]n average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited. Some of these differences remain even when religious and non-religious believers are matched for their degree of prosociality. More fine-grained comparisons reveal fascinating differences between liberal vs. conservative protestant denominations, with more anxiety among the liberals and conservatives feeling better in the company of others than when alone.


By my assessment, the majority of religions in the sample are centered on practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups and the regulation of social interactions within and between groups. New religious movements usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social organizations (religious or secular) in practical terms and is better served by the new movement. The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions in the sample usually make excellent practical sense when judged by the only gold standard that matters from an evolutionary perspective — what they cause the religious believers to do.

He then goes on to give an extended example based on the Indian ascetic tradition of Jainism:

Jainism is one of the oldest and most ascetic of all the eastern religions and is practiced by approximately three percent of the Indian population. Jain ascetics filter the air they breathe, the water they drink, and sweep the path in front of them to avoid killing any creature no matter how small. They are homeless, without possessions, and sometimes even fast themselves to death by taking a vow of “santhara” that is celebrated by the entire community. How could such a religion benefit either individuals or groups in a practical sense? It is easy to conclude from the sight of an emaciated Jain ascetic that the religion is indeed a cultural disease — until one reads the scholarly literature.

Hopefully that will induce you to read the whole piece. it is long, but well worth the effort.

UPDATE: Dawkins' reply is also worthwhile, if only for balance.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Can morality exist without God?

[NOTE: This essay is rough and incomplete, but it will be at least three days before I have another chance to work on it. Rather than keep my adoring fans waiting (both of you) I've decided to go ahead and post this draft and make updates later.]

Denis Prager and Joseph Talushkin sum the issue up nicely in their book, "The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism":

If there is no God, there are no rights and wrongs that transcend personal preference ... Moral judgements [are] purely subjective. It is self-evident and acknowledged by the foremost atheist philosophers that if a moral God does not exist, neither does a universal morality. Without God all we can have are opinions about morality...

And indeed they are correct. No less a secular luminary than Bertrand Russell wrote:

I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it.

Prager and Talushkin wrote in 1986 (which is why their book is called what it is and not "The Judaism FAQ" :-) and Russell wrote in 1960. These dates turn out to be significant. The problem of how to define an objective morality without God was in fact solved in 1980 by a fellow named Robert Axelrod. As far as I'm concerned, Axelrod's name IMHO ought to be numbered alongside Darwin, Einstein and Newton as one of the greatest contributors to human knowledge of all time. Instead his work has gone virtually ignored by almost everyone, religious and secular alike. But as usual, I am getting ahead of myself.

It should be noted that defining morality with God is no slam-dunk. First you have to decide which God to follow because there are so many to choose from. Even the God of Abraham, who has pretty much cornered the market of modern theology, comes in three major versions (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) and countless minor ones. The putative Word of God includes such guidance as:

When you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads, until ye have made a great slaughter among them... (The Q'uran, sura 47:4)


Put away your sword, for those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

So which is it? How can we decide which version of God's Word to follow without some standard that transcends God?

The question of whether God sets the moral standard or follows a moral standard was first raised by Socrates in 380BC. The dilemma can be summed up thusly: if God says what he says because He is moral then morality transcends God. On the other hand, if what is moral is defined by the Word of God, then in what sense can morality thus defined be considered "good"? Is it moral to kill unbelievers because Allah says so? What if God said it was OK to kill innocent children? Would that in fact make it moral? (And if your response is: God would never say that, then my response is: 1) he already has said it on a number of occasions, and 2) who are you, mere mortal, to say what God would and would not say?

Even putting aside the metaphysical question of the moral status of God, there are practical issues involved with how to interpret God's word. For example, Leviticus 24:16 says, "And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death..." Does that mean we should institute the death penalty for blasphemy? Or take the second commandment. This is commonly taken as a prohibition against idol worship (though the sight of Catholics bowing down before statues of saints really makes me wonder sometimes) but the actual text says, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth." Does that mean that photographs, statues, and portraits are immoral? Muslims think so. How do we decide? These kinds of conundrums are legion, and have kept theologians occupied for millennia.

To these questions I would add one more: why aren't all the atheists raping and pillaging? In Norway, for example, the overwhelming majority of the population is non-religious, and yet you do not see uncontrolled outbreaks of selfish behavior. To the contrary, Norway is socialist, and has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world. Sweden and Japan are similar. By way of contrast, the United States, with one of the highest concentrations of avowed Christians in the world, has one of the highest rates of violent crime, and is notorious for its ever-increasing socio-economic disparities.

The mere fact that this observation appears to require explanation is also indicative of the answer: people have a moral intuition, a subconscious sense of right and wrong, a conscience. And although they differ in detail, there are remarkable consistencies in moral intuition across all the world's religions and cultures. For example, there is an overwhelming consensus that killing innocents without provocation is wrong. There is not a single culture in the world that does not consider killing, lying and stealing to be evil. Conversely, there is not a single culture in the world that does not consider justice (including punishment for transgressions), honesty and charity to be virtues. To be sure, moral intuition is not uniform. For example, some people's moral intuition tells them that abortion is evil, while others' do not. My point is not to say (at this point) that moral intuition is a reliable guide to morality, merely that moral intuition exists. This should be non-controversial except among the most extreme pedants.

If we accept that moral intuition exists two questions naturally arise. First, is moral intuition a reliable guide to morality? Even the most cursory examination reveals that it cannot be absolutely reliable because it is not absolutely uniform. Some people think abortion is acceptable, some people think it isn't. They can't both be right.

The second question, which I believe will shed some light on the first, is: where did this moral intuition come from? There are three possibilities. The first is that it came from God, that it is one aspect of being created in His image. This is an attractive possibility, but alas not supported by the Bible. According to the Bible, moral intuition arose when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good an evil. (To the contrary, the Bible is quite clear that man was not created with the capacity to tell good from evil, which has always led me to wonder how God expected Eve to know that she was supposed to obey God and not the serpent. But that is a matter for another time.)

The third possibility is that moral intuition evolved. This has always seemed intuitively improbable. After all, evolution is all about survival of the fittest, the ends justify the means, red in tooth and claw, and all that, while our moral intuitions tell us things like that we ought to take precious resources and give them to the poor and the weak, which would seem to be exactly the opposite of what Darwinian evolution would lead us to expect. But Darwin is subtle, and evolution produces a lot of things that one might not expect at first glance, like peacock's tails. The puzzle of how Darwinian evolution could lead to non-selfish behavior was solved by Robert Axelrod in 1980.

Axelrod explored a famous mathematical model of moral choices called the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD). PD is a game played with two players. Each player has only two possible moves: cooperate (C) or defect (D). Points are awarded according to the following schedule:

* If both players cooperate each one gets 3 points.

* If both players defect, each one gets 1 point.

* If one player cooperates and the other defects then the cooperating player gets 0 points and the defecting player gets 5 points.

(The Prisoner's Dilemma is called that because it is usually framed as a story about two prisoners who each have to decide whether to testify against the other. But the model applies to a wide variety of social interactions.)

The main thing to notice about the scoring system is that no matter what your opponent does you always do better for yourself by defecting than by cooperating. So on its face there should never be any reason to cooperate. Intuitively, the best Darwinian strategy is to always defect. And indeed, defection is the best strategy for a single round of PD. It is even the best strategy for multiple rounds of PD if the number of rounds is known in advance. (This is because defecting is the best strategy on the last round, so it must be the best strategy on the round before, etc.)

*HOWEVER* (and this quite possibly the single most under-appreciated insight in all of human history) if the number of rounds is not known in advance then it turns out that there is no one best strategy! Which strategy is best for you depends on which strategy your opponent is using.

For example, suppose that you opponent is using a TIT-FOR-TAT strategy (which in this context we may call an-eye-for-an-eye), where they cooperate on the first move and then respond on the next move with whatever you did on the previous move. In that case your best strategy is to alway cooperate. By way of contrast, if your opponent is using a strategy of ABSOLUTE ALTRUISM (always cooperate) then your best strategy (as in the non-iterated PD) is to always defect.

The Prisoner's Dilemma has been around for a long time, but only relatively recently has computing power become cheap enough to really allow an exploration into its dynamics. This is what Robert Axelrod did starting in 1980. And what he discovered is truly astonishing.

Axelrod performed a series of experiments pitting little computer programs to play PD against each other. I won't bore you with the details here. Instead I'll just cut to the chase. Here are the major results.

1. In nearly all circumstances, the "best" strategy (in the sense that it was the strategy that accumulated the most points when playing against a selection of other strategies) was TIT-FOR-TAT. This included tournaments among programs generated by humans as well as programs that were generated automatically and "evolved" according to Darwinian natural selection.

2. No human-generated program ever beat TIT-FOR-TAT. However, automatically generated programs did occasionally (about 25% of the time) evolve that were able to beat it. All of these program were very complex.

3. Nearly all of the programs that were able to "survive" for any length of time in the Darwinian simulations had a number of features in common. They were nice, which is to say, they were never the first to defect. They were easily provoked, that is, it didn't take very many defections before they defected. And they were forgiving, that is, once the opponent started to cooperate again they would quickly start to cooperate in return.

These results are proof that the naive intuition about Darwinian morality, that moral behavior cannot evolve, is wrong. Purely selfish behavior does not reproduce well. Neither does purely altruistic behavior. What reproduces best is a set of behaviors that very closely track the major features of human moral intuition: niceness, retribution, and forgiveness.

Now, of course this does not prove that moral intuition evolved, but it does show pretty convincingly that it could have. The burden is no longer on the atheist to justify their belief in morality. They can now say: my morality comes from a moral intuition wired into my brain by evolution according to Axelrod's model. If a religious person wants to claim that God is necessary for morality the burden is now on them to show why this is not possible. And that would be a heavy burden indeed. It is indeed a shame that Bertrand Russell did not live to see Axelrod's results.

Now, of course this far from the last word on morality. Moral intuition doesn't speak with absolute clarity about what is right and wrong. It requires deliberation and interpretation, just like the Word of God. But (and this is the crucial point) it provides common ground for a discussion about morality between the religious and the secular. For the purposes of achieving a consensus on what moral behavior is it is not necessary to achieve consensus about what the source is. Some people will say God, some will say Allah, and some with say evolved moral intuition. As long as they arrive at the same conclusions that's good enough. If everyone agrees that it's wrong to kill, it doesn't matter that people disagree about the narrative that led them to that conclusion. Of course, it would be nice to get everyone to agree on the narrative also, but that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon. So failing that, arriving at the same conclusions by different routes seems to me to be the next best thing.

There are three features of an evolved intuition as a basis for moral behavior that make it particularly attractive as an account of how human being ought to behave. First, it allows for a morality that changes over time. Religious people recoil at this because they are fond of believing that moral behavior is revealed by God and is unchanging. But this is not reflective of reality. There was a time when slavery and stoning people to death for blasphemy really was considered moral. Now it's not. Darwinian morality allows us to excuse our forbears on the grounds that their moral intuitions might have been different from ours, and may have even been more appropriate to their circumstances. (For example, early societies lived much closer to the edge of survival than modern ones. Dissent is a luxury they may not have been able to afford.)

A second attractive feature of evolved moral intuition that makes it attractive is that it actually embraces religion, or at least predicts its emergence. If moral behavior has survival value, then beliefs that enforce moral behavior also have survival value, and so we would expect those to evolve as well. Surprisingly perhaps, the answer to the question: "is morality possible without God?" turns out to be "no", but not because God is a prerequisite for morality, but rather a necessary consequence of the mechanism by which moral behavior is produced (at least in an environment that includes creatures with sufficiently large brains).

The third feature that makes evolved intuition attractive as a basis for morality is that it can account for behaviors that transcend the short-term needs of our bodies. We mostly think of evolutionary theory as applying to DNA, but evolutionary theory can be applied to any information-carrying entity that is capable of reproducing itself. In the case of humans, there are two different replicators in play: our DNA, and the thoughts and ideas resident in our brains (what Dawkins calls memes). These two replicators are symbionts. Ideas cannot (yet) reproduce without brains, and brains reproduce much better in the presence of ideas like agriculture and antibiotics. But sometimes the needs of these two replicators are in conflict. But a discussion of that will have to wait for a few more days.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Scientific morality: the trailer

For those of you eagerly awaiting my post on Scientific morality, here's a sneak preview. Note that the slide show is four years old and things have evolved (no pun intended) since then, so be kind.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Critical Examination of Calvinism

I was starting to prepare some arguments against Calvanistic morality when I discovered that someone had already done it for me -- and even more fortuitously, that person is (or at least considers himself) a Christian. Just a heads-up in case wrf3 wants to respond :-) A post on Scientific morality is still in the works.

Friday, May 02, 2008


I was going to call this post "On the teleology of informatics" but that just came out sounding way too postmodernist. But I couldn't come up with anything better.

mar13 writes:

There are a wide spectrum of CP. Our David is one of the more servere case due to his brain damage from a skull fracture. ... Please pardon my morbid thought, (and trust me, this is way more painful for me to bring up than yours) but if human dignity is bound up in our information processing, then there is every little reason to keep David [in] existence, except for medical research purposes.

First, let me reiterate how sorry I am for your tragedy, and that I in no way wish to dissuade you from your faith if it gives you comfort (more on this later). But since you ask...

Even from a hard-core Scientific (capital S) point of view, it is not true that "if human dignity is bound up in our information processing, then there is every little reason to keep David [in] existence, except for medical research purposes." Scientists distinguish between a person and their body. They are not the same thing. This is similar to the distinction that religions make between a person's body and their soul, except that the soul is usually taken to be some extra-physical entity that survives the death of the body. The Scientific point of view is that a person *is* the information stored in their brains. So there is an intimate and mostly unseverable bond between a person and their body. We do not yet know how to extract the information that is a person from the brain that information resides in, except for the little bits that come out in what they say and write and do. At the moment, when the brain dies the person dies, even if the rest of the body that person once resided in might still be alive. The status of such a body is not unlike Henrietta Lack's cancer cells. It is human life, but it is not a person.

Now, I don't know David. I can only base my judgement on what you have told me, and what you have told me is that he is a person with CP. A person with CP -- even severe CP -- is still a person.

How would you find strength in these kinds of life problem?

I have never had to deal with anything even remotely as difficult as what you are faced with, so until I am tested that way the only really honest answer to your question is that I don't know. This is one of the reasons that I take issue with Dawkins and Harris. I don't know their life stories, but from what I can tell they, as I, have been the beneficiaries of life's inequities rather than its victims. It's unbelievably arrogant to sit in an ivory tower and tell someone living in the slums of Calcutta that they should not turn to Jesus or Allah or whatever helps them get through their day.

Also, I occasionally turn to God myself in difficult times. I have been extraordinarily blessed and my troubles are trivial compared to what some people have to face, but I have my challenges and I occasionally have a chat with the Big Man. (I tell him I don't believe in him. He says that's OK :-) Even as a Scientist I recognize that faith is a very powerful force. The thing you believe in doesn't have to be real in order to reap the benefits of believing in it, and I don't want to take that away from anyone (unless they try to force me to believe in it too, of course).

But to answer your question directly: Scientists accept that the world is the way it appears to be to our senses. it is a world of great beauty and joy and and, too often, a world of tragedy and despair. Bad things happen to good people sometimes. People die. That's just the Way It Is.

But though we are creatures of information, we are not creatures of logic. We are not Vulcans, we are humans. Logic is only one aspect of ourselves. We have emotions and passions and desires and internal demons. All those are part of the human condition.

We have the power to make the world better than it would otherwise be. (We also have the power to make it worse.) And we can achieve a limited sort of immortality by taking parts of ourselves -- little bits of the information that lives in our brains -- and making them resident in other brains through writing, talking, and generally being known by other people. As long as David is remembered and loved, part of him is still alive in *your* brain (and now, mine, and everyone else who is reading this). In this way we sow the seeds of our souls.

I find my strength by waking up every day marveling at how privileged I am to be a part of this grand adventure we call reality, to be present here, now, and to witness and participate in all the incredible, marvelous, and occasionally terrible things happening here. Whether this will turn out to be enough when the time comes for me to really be tested I won't know until I get there. I hope it is. It's all I have.