Monday, November 28, 2005

Escaping Mind Traps

A Mind Trap (see also, Jedi Mind Trick) is a picture of the world that is self-reinforcing. Once inside the mind trap, everything you see will be confirmation that the picture is correct. The mind trapper usually attaches some strings to the trap so that you give them money or follow their commands.

So how do you tell whether someone is trapping you or telling you something real about the world?

When someone tells you something real about the world, they are making a prediction of some kind. For example, if someone tells you that it is less expensive to give people prescription drugs than it is to pay for the consequences of not doing so, they're making a testable prediction.

However, if they tell you God exists, and you should act in certain prescribed ways, but that nothing you ever see will ever be in contradiction with their holy book, well... reach for your light saber! The messenger is either stuck in the trap or is the trapsetter him/herself.

Evidence cannot point to a conclusion when that conclusion does not predict the evidence. Being consistent with the evidence isn't enough for inference.

A lot of people don't understand this. This is why there are numerous mutually-exclusive belief systems that make no predictions, and why believers in such systems always see the evidence (indeed, all things) as confirming their beliefs. Once inside the trap, believers often give up their critical thinking, outsource their ethical analysis, pay the trapsetter large sums of cash, and in the worst case scenario, do harm to others.

Believing in pictures of the world that make no predictions is the surest way to self-delusion.

By the way, Intelligent Design also "predicts" whatever you observe, no matter what you observe. It, too, is a mental trap. Accept its premise and you'll see designed stuff everywhere, but nothing you ever see will be inconsistent with Intelligent Design.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Science and Poker

Science is a bit like poker. You have to ante up some predictions, and you have to have some skin in the game. It keeps us all honest. However, the proponents of Intelligent Design want a free pass. They never put their claims on the line because they never make a falsifiable prediction. Instead, they point to issues that remain as-yet-unexplained from the perspective of Darwinian evolutionary models, and try to count that as evidence for Intelligent Design. Sorry, but you don't get to take the Jackpot without making a bet. ID advocates deserve to be thrown out of the casino.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Whys are Hows

Many people claim that scientific explanations of life and cosmology can answer the "how" questions, but not the "why" questions.

That got me thinking about what the "why" question really means. Why actually means how. "Why did the chicken cross the road" means "How did the chicken come to cross the road."

This leads us into a definition of explanation.

When we ask how (or why), we are always asking about the connection between a puzzle and its environment. We are asking what must be true of the local environment such that the puzzle makes sense within it.

The physics questions, of course, fit into this pattern quite well.

"How does this bridge support the weight of the freight train that crosses it?"

There are rules in this environment (e.g., Newton's Laws, and the properties of the elements, steel in particular) that, when taken in combination with the puzzle, form a consistent whole. Given this consistent whole, the bridge can, indeed must, support the weight of the train.

Why questions aren't any different.

"Why did I choose to study physics?"

My parents encouraged my interest in science. When I showed them that I knew about a subject, I was rewarded for my study. In high school, I was good a physics because I had spent so much of my youth thinking about the concepts within it. I also wanted to know the secrets of the universe (who doesn't?). I wanted a starship and a TARDIS, if it was available. I could also get government funding to study the subject. And so on.

All of these environmental factors shaped my personality, and when the time came to decide, I could hardly make any other choice.

By the way, nothing in this analysis prohibits chance events. Consistency is the driving force, not full determinism.

However, there are some questions for which "how" questions make no sense.

When the puzzle in question is the totality of the environment, the questions become meaningless. There is no enclosing environment in which the environment can be said to fit. The environment is just a self-consistent structure, dependent on nothing external.

Here's an example. Suppose we consider a geometric structure governed by certain rules. The structure is formed by line segments in 3D space. Every line segment must meet two or more other line segments at both of its endpoints. There are many such structures, one of which would be the tetrahedron below:

Now, suppose we ask "how is the red line explained by the structure?"

We can say that the environment is such that there are intersections of pairs of lines at both endpoints of the red line, so we have to draw the red line to complete the figure according to the rules of the system. Said another way, without the red line, the environment (the other lines) would not form a consistent system.

Yet, it makes no sense to ask "how is the structure explained by the structure?"

The structure forms a self-consistent whole, and it is meaningless to ask how it is explained by an enclosing structure when there is no such enclosing structure.

Certainly, each individual part of the structure is consistent with its surrounding parts. If we can say this is true of every part of the structure, then we might say it explains itself.

If we observe the universe to be a self-consistent structure with a single, initial event, we need no further explanation of why or how the universe is consistent with anything else.

The Humanist Quiz


You are an atheist, a rationalist, a believer in the triumph of science and of reason over libido. You can’t stand mumbo jumbo, ritual, spiritual nonsense of any kind, and you refuse to allow for these longings in others.

Astrologers, Scientologists and new–age crystal ball creeps are no different in your view from priests, rabbis and imams. They’re all just weak–minded pilgrims on the road to easy answers. Nature as revealed by science is awesome enough for you, but it’s a nature that needs curbing and taming by us on our evolutionary journey to perfection.

Your heroes are Einstein, Darwin, Marx and — these days — Gould, Blakemore, Watson, Crick and Rosalind Franklin. Could you be hiding a little behind those absolutist views, worried that, if you let in a few doubts and contradictory ideas, the whole edifice might crumble? Loosen up a bit and try to enjoy the amazing variety of human belief systems. Don’t worry — it’s unlikely you’ll end up chanting your days away in some distant mountain cult.

What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.

Of course, the results aren't totally accurate. I'm not hiding, nor is Marx one of my heroes. But the quiz was fun.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

My Problem With Religion and Metaphysics

I fear that the outcome of metaphysical thinking will be needless suffering.

I don't want to suggest that all religious people will cause suffering, but that this approach to life is intrinsically blinding and unreasonable.

Here's how I think metaphysical thinking works:

1) Arbitrarily assume metaphysics M. (Or read about someone else's assumptions in an ancient book.)

2) M is consistent with every possible experience. It's not falsifiable because it's metaphysical.

3) Attach to M the imperatives Y, e.g., Pray at specific times, don't eat shellfish, sacrifice a virgin, accumulate wealth, don't accumulate wealth, keep slaves, whatever.

Now, observe that the imperatives Y don't have to lead to any particular outcome. Every outcome is consistent with M. So any Y can be "justified" by M, even though M and Y are completely arbitrary. If sacrificing virgins causes pain and suffering, you can claim it's God's will, or that God somehow balances things out in inherently unobservable ways.

I find this to be wholly unreasonable because any behavior can be justified if you admit metaphysical thinking. A "nice" metaphysician may reject "bad" imperatives, but he cannot criticize the bad imperatives of other faiths when they use the very same derivational methods that the metaphysician used himself (i.e., blind assumption).

To render a religion reasonable, you have to require that 1) your beliefs can be falsified (i.e., M is no longer metaphysical), or 2) that there are no imperatives founded on metaphysical claims.

Fortunately, many people are unwilling to accept Y or M if the outcomes are inconsistent with what they subjectively consider to be "good" outcomes. So, for example, the vast majority of people around the world will reject militant Islam (as metaphysics) or terrorist jihad (as imperative) because they regard the acts and their outcomes to be objectionable. This is what I mean by morality determining faith, and not vice versa.

Are there any religions that might be, how shall I put it... harmless?

Well, if the religion had no imperatives, that would probably be harmless entertainment.

Another possibility is if M merely specified what outcomes were classified as desirable. In this case, science and technology would be the tools used to make those outcomes happen. I find this idea suspect, but less so than any mainstream religion.

To summarize, the main problem I have with religion is that it isolates imperatives from outcomes, by tying imperatives to metaphysics instead. I consider action without concern for outcome to be irrational.

Bush just borrowed another $5,000 in your name

Throughout the first 224 years (1776-2000) of our nation's history, 42 U.S. presidents borrowed a combined $1.01 trillion from foreign governments and financial institutions according to the U.S. Treasury Department. In the past four years alone (2001-2005), the Bush Administration has borrowed a staggering $1.05 trillion.

I'm not exactly sure how this is calculated. In October, the national debt rocketed past $8 trillion. I assume the calculation here is based only on U.S. government bonds sold directly to foreign nations.

No wonder most Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

It is.

FLASHBACK: May 1, 2000
Clinton announces record payment on national debt

President Bill Clinton said Monday that the United States would pay off $216 billion in debt this year, bringing to $355 billion the amount of the nation's debt paid down in the three years since the government balanced the budget and began running surpluses.

In a written statement, Clinton said the $216 billion payment represented the largest debt paydown in American history, and he said that the federal government's long-term debt is now $2.4 trillion lower than projected to be when he first took office.

However, the U.S. government still has a long way to go before it pays down the entire national debt, which now stands at $5.7 trillion.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

No More Common Men

From MSNBC's coverage of the Virginia Governor's race:
Before a crowd of Republican volunteers and activists Bush praised Kilgore as a man who grew up on a farm and "understands how the common man thinks." Kilgore, he said, "doesn’t have a lot of fancy airs.”
I'm so sick of this "common man" rubbish!!! Ignorance and simple-mindedness is not a virtue. It is a curse!

The President is a fine example of everything that's wrong with this approach. Here's a man who doesn't read, can't speak English, doesn't care what's going on in the world, doesn't care about the people's problems, aspires to nothing, and is a disgrace to our once great nation.

We want leaders who are learned, who are diplomats, who are great orators, who appreciate the arts, who understand the sciences, and who care for the plight of the common man. And such men are not common.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Don't Impeach Bush for Lying

A report in yesterday's New York Times makes it clear that the Bush administration quoted the claims of Iraqi exiles and Al Qaeda prisoners as justification for invading Iraq. Yet, in 2002, the CIA regarded these claims as fabrications. Armando at Daily Kos says that this shows Bush lied to the American people to spur the Iraq War. Certainly plausible.

However, there is another possibility. The White House Iraq Group may have just been saps and suckers for terrorist misdirection. The terrorists got exactly what they wanted out of 9/11, namely, an expansion of holy war on both sides. Instead, of being treated as criminals, the jihadists are treated like soldiers. (And, thanks to the abuse scandals, there's no apparent difference in prisoner status between a soldier and a terrorist). Al Qaeda couldn't have asked for a better outcome.

Bush is weak and dangerously incompetent. The first and most vital role of the executive is to protect the nation. It is for his inability to live up to this role that Bush should be impeached.

Friday, November 04, 2005

God's Defense Attorneys

Advocates of Intelligent Design (ID) claim that ID makes real predictions. In particular, they predict that there will be gaps in the fossil record, and that the designer would create life by re-using existing organic technology (i.e., we will see common descent).

Now anyone who has even watched a documentary on evolutionary biology knows that a) the fossil record has gaps, and b) that there is common descent.

ID is a scam. They claim to predict what they already know to be the case.

But what does ID really predict?

Fossils are only preserved in very rare cases, like when an animal dies and is washed into a river bed and buried in fine silt. So gaps in the fossil record are what we should expect, no matter what the origin of life.

Common descent is the one thing specifically not predicted by ID. There's no reason why a designer should reuse DNA technology in every life form, and no reason why species should appear to have common ancestry. A designer could put rabbits in the Precambrian and robot mice in the Cretaceous. That's what ID predicts. Of course, nothing like this has ever been found, so ID doesn't claim this prediction.

By itself, ID makes no real predictions, because the designer could have done anything for any reason. Instead, generic ID merely predicts that we can't explain the origins of life. That's not a falsifiable theory, and it's definitely not science.

ID could render itself a science by making specific claims about the designer. What is she like? What tools did she use, and why did she use them? Where are those tools now? How did the limitations of the designer lead to the designs we see today? Needless to say, ID proponents, who are religiously motivated, won't go there.

ID experts claim to be the peers of scientists. But they're not. They are not fellow detectives trying to solve a mystery. They are defense attorneys for God, arguing that the detectives can't prove their case. The scientific jury isn't buying it, so they have to try their case in the court of public opinion.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck

I saw this movie on Saturday night, and let me tell you, it is a great movie.

The movie covers about four weeks in 1954 at the climax of Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch-hunts. Edward R. Murrow and the CBS newsroom courageously challenged McCarthy's fear-mongering anti-Americanism, knowing that they too would inevitably be labeled as communists by McCarthy.

At several points in the film, I wanted to cheer. I highly recommend this movie.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

United Brotherhood of It's None of Your Damn Business

What consenting adults do in he privacy of their own homes is none of anybody else's damn business. You want to ban a woman's right to choose, porn, French fries, science education, and birth control?

Well, if you do, your guns are next, and so is your religion.

And there are good reasons to ban them both. Thousands of people die needlessly in our gun culture, and not just in gun battles between gun owners. The lives of innocent people are destroyed every day by someone else's right to own a gun. Religion? A system designed to deprive people of critical thinking? A system responsible for the deaths of billions? Sounds like a threat to national security to me.

If I can tolerate your dogmas and killing machines, I think you can tolerate my right to privacy. It's the American way.

The American way is all about freedom. Freedom comes with responsibility. People can do harm with guns, religion and sex, but Americans choose to be free anyway. You get the whole package. You don't get to pick and choose freedoms based on arbitrary criteria, and you don't have the right to use the state to tell people what to do in the privacy of their own homes.

The title of this post is taken from the film The American President.