Wednesday, 6 July 2005

Absolutely Relative

In recent times several religious and lay figures have spoken out against a “wave of moral relativism”, as if this were something new or something that the church is opposed to. Actually all morality is relative and that the only moral relativism the church opposes is that outside its control. In fact, Christianity itself is an excellent model of moral relativism.

We’re all aware of the darker periods of the church’s history – the inquisitions, the burning of “heretics”, the wars between Catholics and Protestants, the antisemitism and so on. Yet these were all things which were perceived to be good at the time. If morality were absolute we’d still believe they were good today, since an absolute morality does not change over time. It is because morality is relative that we form our own different opinions, while it is our arrogance that leads us to believe that whichever idea we have of morality is the only right one, and thus absolute. Today we perceive that these past events were evil. I have no doubt that future generations will look back at us today and determine that some of our current actions are evil too, even if we don’t see it that way right now.

Probably the best known opponents of moral absolutism is, of course, Jesus. Much of his story as reported in the gospels deals with his efforts to change some of the deeply-entrenched concepts of morality in his time and place, often clashing with other religious figures. The basic message of St.Paul was that we are no longer bound by the laws of Moses, but are saved through God’s grace. The very foundations of morality for the followers of the Bible were replaced overnight. Why is it that Christians freely eat pork or oysters today despite the strong prohibitions against them among the Bible’s 613 religious laws? Why are most Christians not even aware of these laws? Because morality changes. They used to be the very foundation of morality, believed to be established by God himself. Today they are barely of historical interest to Christians.

Even the personality of God changes completely in the course of the Bible story. From a cruel and vindictive god who thought nothing of slaughtering the entire human and animal population of the world except for the contents of one large boat, he turned into a loving and forgiving god who sacrificed his own life for the benefit of humanity. Today we are debating the precise instant in which a “person” is created in order to determine whether a fertilised egg has the same rights as a person. Quite a difference from the accounts of the slaughter of many different people or tribes (babies and children included) for no good reason at God’s behest.

Moral relativism is so real that it leads devout people to question and disagree with the actions of their god. In recounting the story of Exodus (in "The Ten Commandments"), filmmaker Cecil B.DeMille was so uncomfortable with the injustice of God hardening pharaoh’s heart repeatedly and punishing him and his people each time, that he invented a woman, “Nefertiri”, in order to let her take the blame for hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Many are the Christians who have a hard time accepting the story that their God killed every first-born of Egypt even though they were guilty of nothing, or that – acting on God’s orders – all Midianite men, women and boys were slaughtered, and all their girls taken for a lifetime of sexual slavery.

Morality is unavoidably relative because our concepts of good or bad are a product of our society, culture, education, and experiences – and those change. Maybe if God were to pop over in person and set the record straight, we’d have an absolute and unchanging code of morality. Unfortunately God stubbornly refuses to prove his existence or tell us his wishes, so all we are left with are a multitude of religions or churches each creating a different God in their own image, and insisting that theirs is the real one and that he wants everyone to obey the said church’s leaders.

Many Christians are familiar with one particular argument of moral relativism – that for something to be a sin, the person doing it must do it intentionally and knowingly. In other words, it depends on the circumstances. If morality were absolute, then a sin would remain a sin irrespective of circumstances. By comparison, the laws of a country are binding whether or not one knows about them, which is why one must not confuse what is illegal and what is immoral.

Moral relativism is in itself neither good nor bad – it just describes what morality is. Of course we have history to teach us that people who believe in an absolute source of morality are not necessarily good – hence we have people who get the idea that God (as an absolute source of morality) wants them to plant a bomb in front of such and such a clinic, or kill someone who looks Jewish, or to hijack a plane and fly it straight into a skyscraper.

Since there is no absolute standard by which to measure morality, such topics will remain subject to debate.

Wednesday, 29 June 2005

Software Patents – the threat to IT

If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today. The solution to this is patent exchanges with large companies and patenting as much as we can ... A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose.”

Bill Gates, “Challenges and Strategy” memo, 16th May 1991

It says much about the above statement that it was written in 1991, before Microsoft built up its own massive repertiore of patents and became one of the very same giants that Bill Gates was referring to, before he became the world’s richest person.

Software patents are rather different from patents granted in just about any other industry, partly because software is itself unlike other products. Very often, little research or capital investment is required to come up with an idea on which a patent is subsequently granted. Patents have already been granted by the European Patent Office (EPO) for concepts as simple as selling items over the internet, tabbed interfaces, paying using a credit card over a network, sending gifts to third parties, or showing related items that might interest a customer based on their previous purchases.1 If the patents granted so far by the EPO are anything to go by, I see no reason to be happy about such a policy becoming a pan-European law.

There are an estimated 20-30,000 software patents granted by the EPO. It has become virtually impossible to write any software whatsoever without infringing on several of these without the authors being aware of it. Any software which uses a patented technology is open to lawsuits demanding royalty payments or damages. The legal process itself is long and expensive, and many companies have either decided to pay up to avoid the legal battles, or were bankrupted in the process of defending themselves.

It is worth noting that just over three quarters of all software patents granted in Europe did not go to European countries at all – the USA and Japan alone account for almost three quarters of all European patents2. There are no two ways of looking at this – software patents work against the European software industry.

One reason that the IT industry is different from other areas is that it is essential for different systems to have universal standards to which all parties subscribe, in order for the industry to thrive. Imagine how it would be if every ISP adopted its own, mutually incompatible protocol for sending and receiving email. These standards can only exist as long as they are not controlled by any single party. Many a company has tried to get rich quick by gaining control of these standards through patents. Some companies actually do nothing else – they buy or register as many patents as they can and sit on them quietly until they see a large, rich company developing something that falls under the patent’s description, then pounce. One recent case which made the news was when a small, previously-unnoticed company called Eolas successfully sued Microsoft for half a billion dollars for permitting the use of plugin-based technology in their browsers. This technology is behind products like Macromedia Flash and Java applets. While this patent was later nullified after a review, if successful it could have meant a massive redesign of many web pages and sites. One should note that Eolas did not actually produce any product – both the browsers and the applications that display Flash or Java applets were created by other companies, and the technology used was quite run-of-the-mill. Eolas merely managed to get a patent on a description on paper.

In a similar way, Microsoft frequently takes out patents on simple concepts such as double-clicking a mouse, or on data formats such as their FAT file system or their new Office document formats. The latter are a way for Microsoft to try to prevent any competing products from being able to read the documents that customers produce using their products, thus effectively tying customers to their products indefinitely.

One good example of how a patent-free industry favours the world as a whole is the web itself. Many people browsing the web freely today are unaware that the world wide web was invented, in 1989, by Tim Berners-Lee, working at CERN in Switzerland. Berners-Lee also wrote the first web browser, the first web server and the first website. Perhaps his greatest contribution however was his decision, supported by CERN, to make his invention freely available with no royalties and no patents. It was the decision that would make the web into the incredible medium it is today.

What would have happened if CERN or Berners-Lee had decided to take out patents on every new aspect of the web? Would consumers have to pay a small fee for every website they visit, or every search query? Would the web even exist today?

The United States is currently facing a nightmare of trying to sort out its patent tangle. The Federal Trade Commission has urged the Patent and Trademark Office to revise its modus operandi, making it more difficult to acquire patents and easier to challenge them3. The last thing we need in Europe is to repeat the mistakes made across the Atlantic all over again.

While software patents are a general threat and stumbling block to all software development, it is especially harmful to the free/open source model, in which the authors write and distribute their software freely, and thus have no direct revenue from which to either pay off litigating companies or engage them in expensive legal battles.

This is the situation being faced by the various institutions in Europe at the moment. While the European Parliament has repeatedly rejected a proposal for a US-style patent law throughout Europe, the council of ministers and the EU commission has been strongly promoting it. Large corporations, especially American ones, have also been lobbying strongly to have their patent repertoire recognised in all EU countries, allowing them to sue European companies.

Having a common European policy and mutual recognition as regards patents is a good thing. Allowing patents on software, algorithms, business methods or formats is not. What happens in the future depends on the outcome of the current disagreement between the European Parliament and the Council and Commission.

1 See
2 See
3 See

Sunday, 29 May 2005

Abortion in the Constitution

It seems that the Morality Police are asserting their dominance on our island once again. From statements that IVF should only be available to married couples we've moved on to the Commissioner "for" (sic) Children stating that IVF should be prohibited altogether. Apparently people who have difficulty having children without medical assistance should just accept their fate and resign themselves to never having any. Now we have a motion to degrade the constitution by using it as a way to place the part of our criminal code dealing with abortion beyond the reach of democracy. I'm still somewhat at a loss to explain the reasoning behind this. Maybe the Vatican's recent surge in canonisations raised Tonio Borg's expectations to new highs.

Let's get one thing straight: Neither the law as it stands, nor lowering the constitution down to its level will change the fact that abortions do, and will continue to take place. Women who have unwanted pregnancies will always have that option, via the simple process of taking a quick trip over to Italy or just about any other country.

Also, as things stand - with all three main political parties essentially against abortion, it is very unlikely that the law prohibiting it is going to be removed any time soon. The only difference the constitutional amendment will make would be to make it much more difficult for future parliaments to change any of it. It shows an insulting lack of confidence in the political process by which our country is run, in future members of parliament as well as in the Maltese population as a whole. Tonio Borg is essentially saying that he doesn't trust us to elect people in parliament to represent our points of view. He wants to protect us from our own voting rights. How thoughtful.

I do not believe that the constitution should be abused for that purpose. In any democracy one has to accept that sometimes the will of the majority does not agree with one's own. If there should come a time when, in Malta, the majority decide that a woman should have the final say about her pregnancy, then the law prohibiting abortion should be repealed, even if a substantial minority disagree. It's either that or abandon all pretense at being a democratic nation.

Many have commented that one might as well entrench the laws against murder, or other similar laws. There is indeed a difference between these laws in that people aren't as certain about abortion as they are about murder. While most people are strongly aganist abortions in the late term, ask them about the morning-after pill and many will have doubts. True, there is no significant difference between a 9-month fetus and a newborn baby, but when you have a single fertilised egg, so small that one can't tell it apart from any other speck of dust without resorting to a microscope, it's difficult to say with a straight face "that's a person like myself". These uncertainties are well-founded. If a single fertilised egg is "a person", how does one explain what happens when that early zygote splits in two, to form identical twins? Since they formed from the same egg, and have the exact same genetic code, are they half a person each?

It seems that Minister Borg wants to protect us from the answers.

Sunday, 15 May 2005

Does God exist?

Does God exist? I find that question particularly hard to answer because so far nobody seems to have a good, solid definition of who or what God is. Is God the guy who slaughtered the entire human and animal population of the world except for the contents of one large boat, and who killed every first born of Egypt simply because they were born before their siblings? Or is it the loving, caring and forgiving deity described in Jesus’ parables? Surely they can’t be one and the same! Or maybe he’s Zeus who flings lightning as a preferred weapon and enjoys dallying with mortal women, much to Hera’s annoyance and leading to her eventual retribution against the poor human girls who were merely obeying God’s demands. It’s already impossible to disprove the existence of a god who lives somewhere in “heaven” (wherever that is) but is otherwise invisible and undetectable, without the added difficulty of having to choose which of these myriad gods one is supposed to disprove.

On the other hand of course, it should be very easy for any respectable deity to prove his or her own existence. Literature is replete with ancient stories about gods making spectacular appearances, opening up seas, bringing down walls, causing the sun to freeze its journey across the sky, raising people from the dead, dallying with mortal girls who then give birth to superheroes or demigods, and so on. Yet unfortunately that’s the only thing we have to “prove” God’s existence – old stories. It seems that in more recent times the best that God can do is make his face appear in a toasted cheese sandwich (later sold on eBay) and in rainwater stains on a concrete overhead-road support (also in the US). Of course every religion has god stories, and some can be pretty good too. The Odyssey is a fascinating tale of battling against one-eyed giants, sea gods with a personal grudge, monsters on either side of a narrow strait, of courage and loyalty, sex and violence and so on. So why is it that one is expected to believe the stories in one book (say, the Bible) but discount the stories of all other faiths as "mythology"?

Some people point to “miracles” as proof that God listened to, and answered their prayers. The problem here is that believers in every religion can point to similar stories of prayers being answered, not to mention the countless prayers in all religions that seem to fall on deaf or inexistent ears. Even atheists get their wishes fulfilled sometimes despite not having prayed to anyone, and the most interesting thing is that statistically, it doesn’t appear that Christians, or Hindus, or Satanists, or Atheists, have a higher proportion of wishes/prayers come true than any other group - although that depends on how high your expectations are. You can cross your fingers, close your eyes and make a wish to the fairy queen for all the effect it’s going to have. You get many people thanking God for recovering from some illness, easily forgetting the efforts made by medical staff to effect the cure. Students spend countless nights cramming as much data before their exams, but then attribute their passes to God up in the sky. Surely the studying part had something to do with it. According to the gospel of Matthew (16:17-19), one can recognise true believers by their ability to drink deadly poisons and experience no harm at all. Now I'd never dream of asking anyone to prove their faith in this manner, but I'm pretty confident that, if this test were applied, there would be few left alive who claim the title "believer". I think it says much about "the faithful" that they pick and choose which verses to follow or apply, and which to silently ignore or sweep under the carpet. For instance, Catholics tend to be opposed to divorce because they think that Jesus was resolutely against it. Yet in Matt. 5:32, he makes an exception in the case of marital unfaithfulness. Now there's something you rarely hear about in Catholic anti-divorce propaganda. Shouldn't the Vatican approve of divorce if either of the spouses can prove that adultery took place, considering that Jesus himself said so? I doubt that many Catholics are even aware of the verse. While Jesus is usually portrayed as peace-loving, that didn't stop him, in Luke 22:36, from ordering his followers to take what money they had and buy swords, selling their cloaks if they had to. Then there are of course those chapters which have haunted the Christian conscience for ages, like the ten plagues of Egypt - terrible punishments meted to the ordinary Egyptian citizens despite the fact that it had been God who hardened Pharaoh's heart each time, and despite the fact that the Egyptians were all in favour of letting the Hebrews go. So unjust is this account that Cecil B. Demille couldn't bear it, and in The Ten Commandments invented a woman, Nefertiri, just so he could blame her for hardening Pharaoh's heart.

So why did these gods get invented? I think the main reason is that mankind, having evolved to use its intelligence as its primary strength and curiousity as a potent tool towards gaining knowledge, has always felt a strong need to have an explanation for everything. We see lightning flash across the sky and we need to give it an explanation. By explaining it we feel superior to it. It does not bother us so much if the explanation is shaky at best, because even a wrong explanation is better than none at all to our insatiable curiosity. Thus lightning was attributed to Zeus, and further north, thunder was attributed to Thor swinging his hammer around and hitting stuff. Storms in all cultures were attributed to gods having a temper tantrum because, frankly, storms evoke the image of someone who’s angry. As human knowledge grew, we got better and more accurate explanations for these phenomena. Lightning, we realised, was the product of static electricity building up in storm clouds, and suddenly we no longer needed Zeus, or any other deity, as an explanation for them. The lightning gods had served their purpose and were discarded, sad byproducts of the human quest for knowledge. The Christian God was not totally unaffected. We no longer see a rainbow and think of it as a post-it note placed by a forgetful God to remind himself not to slaughter everything that moves. For a long time many Christians strongly resisted the introduction of teachings such as the idea that the earth orbits the sun, or that life evolved from simpler forms, or that the universe is actually older than Mnajdra Temples, since they believed that they contradicted the Bible’s teachings. In some ("first world") countries many are still trying to resist these concepts, fearing to admit they were wrong in anything lest it leads people to doubt other things, like the church's hierarchy of authority.

There are however a number of topics which science will not or can not approach, and in these areas the gods are relatively safe. For instance, what must we do to get a good seat in the afterlife? Since the afterlife, the soul and the gods are not something we can detect, measure, poke or prod, it’s safe to say that science cannot and probably never will be able to pronounce itself on these issues. As long as one sticks to things like these, one can rest assured that these things can either be proved true, or remain a mystery forever but can never be utterly disproved. Perhaps the best plan is to keep such things as personal matters, between the individual, their co-faithful and any gods that may or may not exist. It's only when these religious beliefs get transposed into laws which affect everybody, or infiltrate other secular matters that things tend to turn nasty. We've quite a lot of history to teach us what happens when religion and government get too intimate. We can see the death toll today as AIDS ravages Africa while the Catholic Cardinals and Archbishops gleefully continue teaching their faithful never to use condoms, even if they know they are HIV-positive. Keep religion where it belongs, in the church and in one's mind and conscience, and the world will be a happier place.