Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Moral-Hazard Myth

Malcolm Gladwell writes in the New Yorker about the myth that national health insurance would cause people to consume more health care resources than if they had to pay for it:

The United States spends more than a thousand dollars per capita per year—or close to four hundred billion dollars—on health-care-related paperwork and administration, whereas Canada, for example, spends only about three hundred dollars per capita. And, of course, every other country in the industrialized world insures all its citizens; despite those extra hundreds of billions of dollars we spend each year, we leave forty-five million people without any insurance. A country that displays an almost ruthless commitment to efficiency and performance in every aspect of its economy—a country that switched to Japanese cars the moment they were more reliable, and to Chinese T-shirts the moment they were five cents cheaper—has loyally stuck with a health-care system that leaves its citizenry pulling out their teeth with pliers.

The so-called free market approach in this country isn't working. You can't have a free market when you're not willing to let players fail in the marketplace. We won't let people die of curable diseases, so don't pretend there's a functional health care market in America.

The insurance companies spent millions to derail Hillary Clinton's health care plan, all-the-while proclaiming that HMO's were the answer. What happened? HMO's did nothing to lower health care costs. The health care inflation rate still grows much faster than standard inflation. The cost of our company HMO plan consistently grew at 25% a year! Every year we had to eat the increase or drop benefits. We have switched providers twice, and each time we renew we face the same choice. And this is with virtually no claims.

The insurance companies are making record profits. Not just from consumers, but from physicians. The increases in physician insurance premiums are traceable to insurance company profits, not malpractice awards (which have fallen).

I've had enough. I think it's time to support a single-payer health insurance plan.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Absolute Morality

I usually dispute the claim that God can define an absolute morality. If I happened to be the supreme being, would my will define morality? If the Devil were the one, true God, should we all do what he says? I don't see how might makes right. Doing what God wants might be rewarding, but the same could be said of doing the bidding of a tyrannical dictator. Aren't we humans the exclusive judge of morality?

Today, while commenting on a blog, I was able to come up with a way in which God (or any other supreme being in a given domain) could be the absolute arbiter of morality.

You see, at some point, God could rewrite our brain structures so we agree with him, and in that sense we are not independent of God. We are just God's bionic components. His Knock'em Sock'em robots, if you will. God convincing us all that ignorance is a virtue (or that stoning people to death for adultery is good), is no different from me calming the butterflies in my stomach. No different from my taking Advil to dull some pain. Human lives don't matter in this picture. In such a picture, there is just one being, and that being always judges itself to be good.

Wow. Religion is more creepy and revolting than even I imagined. And that's saying something.

Next question. Are the butterflies in my stomach morally bound to subdue themselves?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Scientists Speak Up

A friend sent me a link to this New York Times article, Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science:

Dr. Collins said he believed that some scientists were unwilling to profess faith in public "because the assumption is if you are a scientist you don't have any need of action of the supernatural sort," or because of pride in the idea that science is the ultimate source of intellectual meaning.

But he said he believed that some scientists were simply unwilling to confront the big questions religion tried to answer. "You will never understand what it means to be a human being through naturalistic observation," he said. "You won't understand why you are here and what the meaning is. Science has no power to address these questions - and are they not the most important questions we ask ourselves?"

I think Collins is intellectually bankrupt. And he's making the standard religious claim: "you will never understand X."

First of all, let's set the record straight. There is no meaning (not even of the intuitive kind) in religion. Religious people speak as though everything makes sense from a religious worldview. It doesn’t. When you ask “what is the meaning of life,” what possible answer would be acceptable?

I think that’s what Douglas Adams was trying to communicate. 42 is as good and as useful an answer as God. God explains nothing. And of what value would an answer be?

Suppose we learn that we exist in a simulation, and that the purpose of the simulation is to study how humans react to tragedy and meaningless loss of life. Should we revel in death and destruction, and accept them as the creator’s will? I think not. Frankly, it doesn’t matter what the creator wants. What matters is what we consider to be ethically or morally correct, and morality doesn’t come from religion. So, Dr. Collins, it’s not that atheists are unwilling to confront the questions, it’s that religionists are unwilling to confront the answers.

Second, we will find an empirical basis for every one of our thoughts and feelings. We can already trace almost every facet of human mental state to physical states in the brain.

You may have heard about Capgras Delusion, and the case of David Silvera, a man who suffered a brain injury after a car accident. The accident damaged the link between his emotion center and the visual centers in his temporal lobes. He recognized his parents, but believed them to be impostors because they did not generate any emotional response when he saw them. He would flee from the house, but could be coaxed back by a phone call.

With hundreds of such cases demonstrating the physical location of brain function, why posit that there’s something beyond physics here? Once you remove those phenomena not linked to physical brain function, there's nothing left for a soul to explain. Physics seems to cover everything. And if we claim that we’re more than meat machines, why not claim the same of other physical systems? Why don’t stars have souls? Souls have equal explanatory power over both stars and humans.

Perhaps, when we precisely demonstrate the psychological and neurological basis for “meaning”, we will finally convince people that they’ve been living in a sort of fantasy world.

Still, empirically, God seems to be doing something for people. But what?

I think people want some reassurance that their morality has some basis beyond mere preference, and they want to know where their duties begin and end. To these ends, they create God in their own image. I think this is why religion fails to make people more moral. Religion is selected by one's morality, not the other way around. There are good believers and bad believers (cough!robertson).

What I strongly object to is the way religion manipulates people. Though there may be some people who lead better lives because of religion, there are as many whose good lives are led astray. Religion is a threat to us because it makes people less rational and more prone to mob or tribal behavior.

  • Religions ask believers to outsource their morality.

  • Religion tells you that this world is unimportant compared to the next.

  • Religion says you can't solve your own problems and you have to ask for God's help (thereby depriving millions of people of the credit for making their own lives better). It also gives people excuses for not doing the right thing (e.g., "Satan made me do it")

  • It claims that evil and suffering are part of the plan, and gives us excuses for doing nothing to remedy them.

  • Religions deliberately deceive people and encourage ignorance. Religions do this by declaring that certain thoughts and ideas are forbidden. In many religions, it is considered sinful to question your faith or to think critically.

  • Religions are scams. There are few religious orders that have taken and adhered to an oath or poverty, or that are truly pacifist. Most religious organizations are extremely wealthy.

  • Religions equate morality with a set of fixed rules, an ethical impossibility.

  • The list goes on and on!
To those who have been scammed by religion, I say "break free!"

Religious leaders have no qualifications to tell you what to do, and have no valid basis, historical or otherwise, for telling you that you can't solve your own problems. It really gets my dander up when I see ignorant, Iron Age, know-nothing clerics lecture good people on right and wrong.

Who cares if there's no God? We still have the choice and the good sense to lead a good life. We don't need to be tricked into doing the right thing as if we were petulant children. Critical thinking thinking is what's called for. Sapere Aude!

WWJA: Who would Jesus assassinate?

Robertson calls for assassination of Chavez.

“You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it,” Robertson said. “It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war ... and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop.”

Friday, August 19, 2005

Vote "No!" on Roberts

The Washington Post reports on Supreme Court nominee John Roberts' tenure as Reagan's legal advisor:

Covering a period from 1982 to 1986 -- during his tenure as associate counsel to President Reagan -- the memos, letters and other writings show that Roberts endorsed a speech attacking "four decades of misguided" Supreme Court decisions on the role of religion in public life, urged the president to hold off saying AIDS could not be transmitted through casual contact until more research was done, and argued that promotions and firings in the workplace should be based entirely on merit, not affirmative action programs.

In October 1983, Roberts said that he favored creation of a national identity card to prove American citizenship, even though the White House counsel's office was officially opposed to the idea. He wrote that such measures were needed in response to the "real threat to our social fabric posed by uncontrolled immigration."


"It is possible to 'defund the left' without alienating [defense contractors] TRW and Boeing, but the proposals, if enacted, would do both," Roberts opined.

I can't think of anything the man can say at his Senate confirmation hearing that will convince me that he's in sync with the views of the average American citizen. Not that the views of the average American citizen are particularly enlightened, mind you, but Roberts doesn't even rise to that level. The Senate should reject Roberts' bid to join the Supreme Court.

All this talk of Roberts being a shoo-in is BS. He's a Biblical authoritarian, and he is not qualified to dispense justice to Americans. Roberts is another hard-right partisan like Scalia and Thomas. If you don't believe me, read the whole article and see for yourself.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

"God does not exist" is nonsensical

People who claim the god of the Bible exists (or does not exist) are linguistically confused. The verb to exist means to have the potential to have its properties observed. My teddy bear exists because it has the potential to have its properties observed. It is meaningless to speak of "spirit of teddy bear" which has no properties of teddy. Things cannot be said to exist in the absence of their properties.

Yet, the common definition of god is an entity whose properties can never be observed. So, to say that god exists is to claim that the entity whose properties can never be observed has the potential to have its properties observed, which is clearly self-contradictory. Notice that inserting a "not" in front of this proposition doesn't make it any more sensible.

Now, if one's god does have properties that can be observed, then presumably one's god theory is falsifiable. For, to be observable, the properties of god must be distinguishable from the properties of things which are not god. If god is more than just a conjunction of observations, then it is a scientific theory about a sequence of observations, and therefore, it has to be falsifiable. Of course, no one I know believes in a falsifiable god.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Powell Doctrine Amendment

American veterans of Bush's war in Iraq are facing big problems. Just read this article from the BBC:

"At the beginning of the war I was told: 'Don't stop for anybody - if they get in the way, run them over.'"

And he had not been in the country long before he saw a lorry run over a little girl in the road begging for food.

"I had seen dead Iraqis before, but they were fighters. These were people who were getting hit in an innocent way."

He also saw soldiers under his command suffer horrific injuries.

This kind of mental trauma doesn't just disappear overnight. It takes years of treatment, and many don't seek treatment at all. You cannot expect soldiers to return home fit for civilian life after being immersed in daily combat for years at a stretch.

As far as I can tell, Bush is devoting as much care to planning post-withdrawal veterans affairs as he did to post-invasion Iraq.

The invasion of Iraq clearly violated the military's own Powell Doctrine (yes, the doctrine is named after Colin "Good Soldier" Powell). All the lessons learned from Vietnam were ignored. We did not possess overwhelming military force, it proceeded without the informed consent of the American people, and there was never an exit strategy.

We can only speculate why Bush and the neocons betrayed our troops this way. Most likely, Bush and Cheney expected the actual invasion to be simple (as it was), and expected that we would have our hands on the Iraqi oil pump for the next two decades. Being gung-ho types (well, cowardly, draft-dodging, gung-ho types), they expelled, muzzled and demoted anyone who criticised the plan. Along the way, the State Department was locked out of the picture, even though State had prepared a 2500-page document presciently describing the problems we encountered in Iraq. Intelligence officials who brought forward evidence that threw doubt on the master plan were harrassed or demoted by Bush dream team members like John Bolton. Military Generals who dared to claim that we needed more troops or that the reconstruction would take years were given early retirement.

So Bush and company let ideology get the better of them. They screwed up. Time for accountability? No! Bush says promote the idiots who destroyed America's reputation! We give CIA Director Tenet the Congressional Medal of Freedom, promote National Security Advisor Rice to Secretary of State, and GroupThinker in Chief Bolton to U.N. Ambassador.

Insufficient planning, indeed, insufficient caring on the part of the administration has led us into a second Vietnam. This time with too few troops to do the job, and an enemy that truly does threaten our national security. Almost any average citizen would have cared more and done a more thorough job on Iraq.

Long after we exit from Iraq, our brave soldiers will still be fighting Bush's war. And you can bet that, when it comes to funding the war against PTSD, our Republican hawks will suddenly rediscover their spending discipline.

Meanwhile, Bush has the arrogance to take a five-week vacation while our troops get backdoor-drafted into hell. He could at least have continued to pretend he was working in Washington D.C. Hey, Bush voters, still want to have a beer with him?

I propose an amendment to the Powell Doctrine. Don't engage in wars of choice if a) you're unwilling to support the troops while they're in the field, and b) you're unwilling to support them once they return home.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Mathematical Intuitionism

Last month, The Edge published an article by Verena Huber-Dyson entitled Gödel and the Nature of Mathematical Truth II. The nice thing about Huber-Dyson's paper is the way it describes the work of Kurt Gödel in the greater context of the work of David Hilbert.

In 1920, Hilbert proposed a mathematical research program that would show that all of mathematics follows from a finite set of axioms, and that the resulting axiomatic system would be provably consistent.

Of Hilbert's program Huber-Dyson writes:

Wanted was a proof that the system using, what Hilbert called "ideal elements" — reasoning about infinite sets the way we are used to reason about finite ones — was not going to lead beyond the realm of what is justified by finitary reasoning, in other words, that the make believe world of predicate logic was a mere conservative extension of finitism. Alas, he wishfully thought that all he needed was a proof of simple consistency as defined above. That is why the demand for a finitist proof of the consistency of any of the current formal systems was his major concern.

Of course, Gödel showed that Hilbert's program was not feasible:

...Gödel showed how to construct, in any formal system that encompasses a minimal fragment of elementary arithmetic, a sentence, which is true if and only if it cannot be proved, and therefore is true but not provable, unless the system is unsound.

For me, the most interesting part of the paper is something called mathematical intuitionism.

In a nutshell: intuitionist reasoning is a refinement of classical thinking. Identifying notnotA with A only when there is good reason to do so is much closer to everyday reasoning than the practice of the classical law of double negation. With a bit of care most of the popular but devious proofs of positive claims by reductio ad absurdum can be replaced by direct arguments...

claim (A or B) only if you have a method for deciding which one of them is the case; if you want to insist on the existence of an object with a certain property, be sure you have a method for producing such an object when called for.

Wikipedia says this about intuitionism:

For example, to say A or B, to an intuitionist, is to claim that either A or B can be proved. In particular, the law of excluded middle, A or not A, is disallowed since one cannot assume that it is always possible to either prove the statement A or its negation.

I like the sound of this idea (though I will have to do a lot more reading on this subject before I accept it). You see, I read this as a mathematical analogue of logical positivism. If there is no mechanism by which proposition A can be verified, we are not justified in assigning it a truth value at all.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

More Authoritarians

I'm really on to something with my theory about the motivations of authoritarians.

Affair charge rocks cleric:

The Archdiocese of New York is looking into explosive allegations that a top priest who publicly railed against our "sex-saturated society" had a long-term affair with his married church secretary.


My lack of formal education in computer science is showing. I've just read an article on Turing machines. I've read about them before, but this time I was actually trying to absorb something.

You see, I would like to formalize my logical positivist/empiricist take on semantic meaning. If human computation is equivalent to a Turing machine, I might be able to prove my statements formally.

The first step would be to establish a formal definition of understanding. From there, one could probably show that the only way for an intelligence to know that it understood something would be by verification. Now that I think about it, that may even be the formal definition of understanding, i.e., the ability to test whether one has a correct theory. Beware circularity, of course.

As Robin pointed out in her comments on my last post, we don't regard thermostats as having "understanding". My answer to her comment was that true intelligence required an ability to formulate knew theories and test them. My new question is, was my standard for intelligent systems too strict? If understanding is the ability to test whether some knowledge is correct, does that in itself require the ability to formulate theories?

Take the thermostat example. The thermostat applies a rule: if temperature T > Tmax then apply cooling, if temperature T < Tmin do nothing. In order to perform this function, it must know the temperature, T. Does the thermostat "understand" T? Does it know that it knows T? I would say that it does not. Without a theory about how T correlates with any other variable, there is no theory other than, say, "T = 68 degrees F". Since the thermostat has a single sensor that returns a temperature value, there is nothing to check against. The thermostat has no way to tell whether the sensor is functioning correctly or not.

Can we build a thermostat that understands temperature? What is the simplest testable theory about temperature we can make?

How about a thermostat with two different kinds of sensors? A theory of current temperature might then claim that if multiple measurements of temperature are made at times t1 and t2, then

Tsensor1(t1) > Tsensor1(t2)


Tsensor2(t1) > Tsensor2(t2)

if the two sensors are measuring the same thing. If the relation does not hold, then they can't both be measuring temperature.

Can we claim of such a thermostat that it understood what the current temperature was? It would certainly not understand the physical concept of temperature, but it would understand what the current value of T was because it has a means of testing whether it knew the current value of T (or at least whether the current value of T was plausibly correct).

Maybe, understanding is too strong a word. There's at least some difference between executing an algorithm to compare the temperature on two sensors, and constructing new algorithms to do the same.

Still, I think I'm on to something here.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Semantic Meaning

I've been thinking a lot about semantic meaning recently, especially in regard to Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. Anyway, I remain convinced that the meaning of a proposition is found in its method of verification or falsification. I believe that the meaning of a proposition to an individual is itself a theory about the methods of verification for that proposition. I say it is a theory because we generally cannot know with certainty the meaning of a given proposition (Quine's indeterminacy of translation). This is a subtle point because uncertainty in meaning can generally be rendered as small as necessary for any given task. It's only a major limitation when your theory of meaning cannot be verified, not even to yourself.

For example, if you tell me "the quijibo of 5 is 0.2", I will form a theory about the quijibo operator. It might mean an inversion, or it might mean multiplication by 0.04, or any of an infinite number of other possible operations. I will usually assume the simplest one I can think of (humans are simpletons for the most part). I can then evaluate the additional propositions you give me as tests of my quijibo theory.

So, if you give me a mathematical proposition, e.g., "the sum of the squares of 3 and 4 is equal to the square of 5", your proposition is meaningful because I have confidence that I know how to duplicate your computational experiment. I can square the numbers myself and come to the same conclusion (if I get my sums right). Of course, there are many pre-requisites, such as our mathematical axioms, but these can still be communicated sufficiently precisely for the proposition to make sense.

Likewise, propositions about the real world have meaning when a suitable physical experiment can be devised to test the proposition. The proposition need not be about an actual existent object, but the proposition makes sense if I can devise an experiment that would detect it if it did exist.

According to this model of semantic meaning, an AI can only understand a proposition if it can create a theory about what the proposition means, and knows how to perform the computational or physical tests needed to verify it.