Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Defining Subjective and Objective

How does one define the objective and the subjective? It's not as easy as it sounds.

If we aren't careful, we might find that everything is one or the other, and the distinction will mean nothing. If everything is subjective or everything is objective, what good is the distinction? What are we going to use the distinction for? It would be a pointless exercise.

What we are looking for is a distinction under which some things are objective and everything else is subjective.

First, let's admit that everything we know is known through our own faculties of reason and sensation, both of which are known to be imperfect. If susceptibility to such imperfection defines the subjective, then everything would be subjective (so we rule out that definition).

Second, let's also admit that the subjective nature of our individual faculties might be a matter of objective fact. So, if the distinction is to be made, I think we ought to be able to make it whether or not every fact in the universe could be objectively known.

I think that these two admissions lead me to propose the following definition:
An attribute of a thing is subjective when it cannot be determined that the attribute is a feature of the thing itself rather than a consequence of our mental faculties.
Note that, under this definition, if we don't have evidence of the faculty-independence of an attribute, we regard that attribute as subjective.

So, what constitutes evidence of faculty-independence?

I think that evidence of faculty-independence comes in the form of high-precision, alternative comparators. To explain, let's look at why physical mass is regarded as objective.

Technically, humans aren't sensitive to mass, but to force. So we're asking, is "how heavy a thing feels" just a subjective perception? In absolute terms, weight is subjective - a small child will find a 100 pound weight immovable, but an average adult won't. However, what we're really asking is whether relative weight is a measure of something about the weighed objects, or whether it is just about how we are perceiving them.

The way to test this is to find something other than personal sensation of force to use as a comparator. A balance scale, for example. Based on how comparatively heavy two objects feel, you can pretty accurately predict which way the scale will tip when the scale is used as a comparator. You can also do the reverse, and, based on the scale, predict which will feel heavier. You can do this independently of the visual size, shape or composition of the objects.

I think a lack of an acceptable external comparator is what makes a field subjective. If I have two rooms, one containing an ugly person, and another containing a beautiful person, there's no 'beauty-meter' I can poke through the keyholes to tell me which room is which. If I could build such a device, it could work only by emulating me (e.g., through training against my tastes).

Likewise, there's no justice machine that tells us whether one act is more just than another. Any such machine would have to be trained or conditioned against our tastes (e.g., through the use of juries and legal precedent).

Can another person act as an external comparator? I think the answer is "no," and that precision is the vital clue here.

In objective fields, human-trained machines can outperform their trainers. For example, based on my experience with some 1-pound weights, I can devise a machine (such as a balance scale) that can compare two masses weighing hundreds of pounds. More importantly, this machine can be far more sensitive than me when it comes to weighing very small masses. So, I can use the machine to extrapolate beyond my senses and get higher precision, and verify that this sensitivity is real. I can weigh all the grains of rice in a sack, and verify that the heaviest 25% of the grains weigh noticeably more than the lightest 25% of the grains. I can verify that the machine is better than I am at weighing things.

In contrast, human-trained machines can't outperform their trainers in subjective fields. I don't think that a committee or a technical analysis is a more precise judge of beauty or gastronomic taste than the "best" human judge. Likewise, I don't think that the justice system or a religious authority has demonstrated higher moral precision than a good individual human. I think this is a clue that our inventions in these spaces are mere approximations to our subjective feelings.

Similarly, in a subjective field, I cannot verify that another person can work better as external comparator. Suppose you wish to use your friend Plato as an external comparator for the beauty of women. Suppose that 90% of the time, Plato agrees with you. When Plato disagrees, how will you settle the argument? There's no mechanism you can use to verify that Plato is right or wrong.

The same goes for morality. No other person can act as a verifiable external comparator. If God is taken to be an external comparator, then not only must you have faith in his existence, but you must also have (double) faith that he is an accurate external comparator because you certainly can't verify that his is right and you are wrong.

Based on my definition, we are forced to conclude that morality and aesthetics are subjective, whereas mathematics and physics are objective.

Can we find an alternate definition that will hold morality objective, but maintain the subjective-objective distinction? Well, I can't rule out that possibility, but I can't think of a viable alternative. This is because I think that one can't claim objectivity of an attribute if it's observer-dependent, so the tests I have outlined appear to be minimum requirements of objectivity.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Science and Religion

There has been a flurry of blog posts lately about the conflict between science and religion. Thanks to the indisputable success of science, the Christian bloggers argue that there's no conflict. In fact, they argue that Christianity was the source of science, and they quote two authors in particular, Rodney Stark and Stanley Jaki, to back up their claims. If these authors are to be believed, the Dark Ages are a myth, and we wouldn't even have science if it weren't for Christianity.

Fortunately, Richard Carrier sets us straight with a detailed and authoritative explanation of how Christianity impeded science. I highly recommend Carrier's wonderful debunking of some truly devious revisionisms. (HT: Thinking Christian)

Still, Carrier doesn't argue that Christianity is inherently anti-science. Rather, he argues that it impeded science because it established an authoritarian power structure that put a damper on non-conformist thought (non-conformism being a vital ingredient of scientific thinking).

Revelation and Authority
Suppose you make a claim that's not verifiable by logical proof or by empirical testing. Such a claim would be revealed knowledge, and by definition, it isn't publicly testable. This means that the status of revealed knowledge is established by authority.

Don't secularists accept knowledge by authority all the time? Yes, but usually when that authority is itself testable. We take a doctor's diagnosis based on her authority, but we would be loathe to do so if our doctor had had no training, no testing, and if the syllabus she followed had not been validated by medical testing.

Religious authorities are quite different. There's no way to test that religious authorities know what they are talking about. Obviously, we can check that a lowly priest is teaching what the Catholic church says he ought to, but how do we know that the Catholic church leadership knows what it's talking about? By going to the authority of their teachers? The buck of religious knowledge stops at some guy who has no evidence for his claims, and no way for the public to verify what he says is true. If religious authorities were doctors, they would be the worst kind of fraudulent quacks.

How do religions get started?
A prophet comes along and says something like "The highest good is to worship the creator." How do we know he's right? We can't because his claim is not testable. So, if the prophet gains a major following, he does so for reasons other than verification of his claims. Maybe he is followed because he's a charismatic leader or a seasoned warrior, and while these may be rational reasons to make alliances with his clan, these skills aren't reasons to believe his claims. That is, he has authority in verifiable areas (e.g., sword combat), but no authority that will justify his claims.

Nevertheless, people flock to his religion simply because other people are already following it. This is natural for humans. Most of us don't pay much attention to the medical certification process, but we figure that everyone else goes to see doctors, so there must be something worthwhile to medical treatment. Of course, in the case of medicine, we have established formal oversight to ensure that doctors aren't quacks, and to ensure that the medical system isn't just founded on herd mentality. However, in the case of religion, there's no oversight because there's no possible mechanism for oversight.

Eventually and unreasonably, the prophet's followers establish a religious institution with political and economic powers.

One of the conflicts with science arises when the prophet makes claims that he thinks are unverifiable, but which later turn out to be scientific (and false). I can imagine that in the old days, this sort of thing happened all the time. "This volcano is a god, and if you place a piece of pumice at your door, your house will be safe!" shouted the prophet. As the homes of the villagers burned down, leaving nothing but ash and lumps of blackened pumice where the doorsteps used to be, the volcano god and his prophet went up in smoke.

Sometimes, though, the prophet's claims remained untestable for a long period of time. For example, the people who wrote the Old Testament probably thought that geocentrism was either obvious or unverifiable. When scientists showed up hundreds of years later and said the Earth wasn't at the center of the universe, they were effectively challenging the authority which established the religion, and religious authority had to fight back.

Thus, religion tends to damp scientific investigation because religion is inherently authoritarian. When state and religion are mixed, non-conformist ideas (like scientific ones) get clobbered, even if those ideas are verified. Galileo's case clearly demonstrates this phenomenon. Though many Christians will protest that Galileo's imprisonment was primarily political, the church still forced Galileo to recant his (true) heliocentric ideas, and declared heliocentrism a heresy.

However, religion still conflicts with science, even when it remains separate from the state. Imagine that the church in Galileo's time was not also the state. What would the church have been teaching? It would have taught its followers to reject Galileo's science in favor of church authority. This is anti-scientific in the sense that it aims to discredit science. This isn't just a thought experiment. Modern churches convince their flocks that the established science of Darwinian evolution is a myth. That's anti-science, my friends.

Always in Conflict?
I spent a while trying to figure out a way to have a science-friendly religion, but I wasn't particularly successful.

We could require state secularism, i.e., strict separation of church and state, and we could require that the religion not make claims that are verifiable. That way, no scientific conclusion will ever impact religious views, and the religious authorities will have no reason to spread dissent against scientific methods or conclusions. This certainly helps, but I think that it doesn't go far enough.

A scientific mind will not easily accept propositions that are established solely on the basis of authority. For example, what is a scientist to make of the claim that "God is good despite the fact that there's nothing we could ever observe that would change our minds"? To a scientist, this is a thoroughly unreasonable proposition. The scientific mind is filled with doubt, not faith. Yet religious faith trains minds to accept claims based on authority and without evidence.

If claims based solely on authority without evidence are useless when verification is available, why should such claims suddenly become effective just because we can no longer verify that they are wrong?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Reconsideration of Atran

In a recent post, I seized upon some criticism of Scott Atran at the Beyond Belief conference. I've been reading more writing by Scott Atran, and he really brings a lot of excellent empirical information to the table. This excerpt from a recent reply on Edge was fascinating:
Religious worlds with supernaturals who manage our existential anxieties — such as sudden catastrophe, loneliness, injustice and misery – are minimally counterintuitive worlds. An experimental setup for this idea is to consider a 3 x 4 matrix of core domains (folkphysics, folkbiology, folkpsychology) by ontological categories (person, animal, plant, substance). By changing one and only one intuitive relationship among the 12 cells you then generate what Pascal Boyer calls a "minimal counterintuition." For example, switching the cell ( − folkpsychology, substance) to ( + folkpsychology, substance) yields a thinking talisman, whereas switching ( + folkpsychology, person) to (− folkpsychology, person) yields an unthinking zombie. But changing two or more cells simultaneously usually leads only to confusion. Our experiments show that minimally counterintuitive beliefs are optimal for retaining stories in human memory (mains results have been replicated by teams of independent researchers, see for example articles in the most recent issue of the Journal of Cognition and Culture).
Atran goes on to show, for example, that interpretations of the Ten Commandments are pretty resilient to translation. Serial paraphrasing of "Thou shalt not kill" ends up with a message that faithfully expresses the original principle. Not all passages have this property. This means that the meaning and interpretation of a passage by religionists is not generally literal, but is some sort of invariant inspiration that follows from that passage. Well worth the read.

Atran seems to rub everyone the wrong way because he doesn't seem to get from his deep understanding of sociology to any strategy for secularization. Instead, he just talks about how tough a problem it is to deal with an irrational world. Atran has a point, but I think he underestimates the value of public criticism of religion. I think it has a powerful liberal effect when people lose their fear of atheism through familiarity with its concepts and adherents.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Supernatural Law is Natural

A supernatural thing is a thing not governed by law. I expect most supernaturalists will immediately object that I have omitted the word "natural" before the word law, arguing that supernatural causes may be governed by unnatural laws.

Here, I'm going to dispense with this confusion. There's really no natural/non-natural distinction when it comes to law. I can't think of any non-natural laws. A thing (or aspect of a thing) is natural if and only if that thing is governed by law.

Mathematics is lawful and non-physical, yet we don't consider mathematics to be supernatural.

Electromagnetic phenomena like lightning were once considered unnatural phenomena, but electromagnetism became natural when it was found to obey laws. So, the whole idea of "supernatural law" is quite ridiculous. A supernatural law would simply be reclassified as a natural law in the same way lightning is now interpreted as a natural phenomenon.

This means that the space of supernatural stuff contains nothing governed by laws of any kind. No matter what we observe about a supernatural system or precursor, we cannot say anything about its future state.

Have I proven that there are no supernatural (uncaused) events? Not at all. There may well be such events. It's just that, if we knew that an event were supernatural, its supernatural nature would be all we could ever know about it. Of course, we can't actually know that an event is supernatural. At best you might show that you cannot find a law that would account for the event. Hence, the assertion that an event is supernatural is the assertion that not only do we not know the cause of an event, but we cannot know anything about its cause, not even in principle. It's ignorance piled on top of ignorance.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Beyond Belief Video

Video recordings of the Beyond Belief conference can be seen at, and they're a lot of fun.

I haven't had time to watch them all, but the most interesting presentation I've seen so far was given by V.S. Ramachandran. Ramachandran's description of a patient whose disconnected brain hemispheres have opposing views on God's existence is priceless:
So here is a human being whose left hemisphere is an atheist, and whose right hemisphere believes in God, and this finding should have sent a tsunami through the theological community, but barely produced a ripple. Because it raises all sorts of profound theological questions. If this person dies, what happens? Does one hemisphere...
We also get to hear Richard Dawkins relate a story about the former editor of New Scientist who was asked what philosophy it was he brought to the magazine which resulted in the publication's great success under the editor's tenure. The editor responded, "our philosophy is that science is interesting, and anyone who thinks it isn't can f*ck off!"

As a bonus, we get to see an equal-opportunity mauling of Stuart Hameroff by physicists, philosophers and neuroscientists alike. Hameroff goes down in flames for perpetuating a silly and nonsensical theory about quantum consciousness.

Love it!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Dick Cheney's Historical Documents

I'm well into Season Two of The Six Million Dollar Man, and I've just realized that this show is where the Vice President is getting his intelligence information. These episodes are his "historical documents."

Of course, to Cheney's way of thinking, the diplomatic and humane methods employed by the OSI constitute appeasement of terrorists.

BTW, the cool pop artwork is by Francois Coorens.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Beyond Belief Discussion presents a post-conference discussion among participants in November's Beyond Belief conference.

Anthropologist Scott Atran takes Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins to task for what he sees as their naïve anti-religious views. However, I have to agree with the rebuttals. Though Atran manages to provide quote fodder for theist bloggers, he's not making a lot of sense. The issue here is dogmatism. People need to get used to having their hare-brained dogmas publicly criticized and ridiculed.

Sam Harris writes:
Were the regimes of Stalin and Hitler actually the products of too much intellectual honesty? Was an overweening demand for good evidence and coherent argument really what built the Soviet gulag and the Nazi crematoria? Are the Swedes — a majority of whom appear to be atheists (poll results range from 45-80%) — gearing up for the next great atrocity? It is amazing to see someone like Atran defend religious dogmatism by pointing out that the consequences of political and racist dogmatism have also been terrible. One of the most conspicuous problems with communism and fascism is that they are so similar to religions. These political ideologies are systems of brittle, divisive, and dehumanizing dogmatism. And they regularly give rise to personality cults which evince all the perverse features of religious hero-worship. I invite Atran to produce a single example of a society that has suffered because its members became too reasonable — that is, too open to evidence and argument, too critical of dogma, etc.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Real Force Behind the Mass Murders of History

A friend suggested I comment on a recent column by Dinesh D'Souza claiming that atheism, rather than religion, is responsible for the greatest mass murders of history. These sort of accusations pop up now and again, and they're a sign that either the accuser is playing games, or has a very limited understanding of the issues.

Just to put things in perspective for those who have never heard of D'Souza, he is one of the neoconservatives who thought invading Iraq was a pretty cool idea back in 2003. He also recently thought that a democratic Iraq would be a beacon of inspiration to other nations in the region. This isn't directly relevant to D'Souza's column, but it does establish the level of wingnuttery we're dealing with here.

At the conclusion of D'Souza's column about the evils of atheism, he writes:
It's time to abandon the mindlessly repeated mantra that religious belief has been the greatest source of human conflict and violence.
Now, hang on to your butts... this statement isn't completely untrue. It's just misleading. It's not a connection between totalitarianism and religious belief. The problem is with organized religion.

There are two kinds of dictatorships: mandated and coerced.

Coerced dictatorships emerge by overpowering the people. For instance, the Russian Civil War was lost by the liberals, leaving a radical, authoritarian, fear-mongering cabal in power. The people made their stand and were defeated militarily. In the decades that followed, millions would die at the hands of a paranoid police state. In such cases, it makes little difference whether or not the people are critical thinkers and humanitarians.

The claim that religious affiliation of the dictator would have prevented the holocausts of the 20th century is utterly preposterous. Dictators are not nice guys, and mass murder goes with the territory. That's how they get to be dictators.

When they're theistic, the dictators see themselves as God's representative on Earth, and they'll see their self-preservation as a holy cause.

Though Hitler's actions were motivated neither by Christianity nor atheism, Hitler was a Christian. The evidence is as plain as day. I quite expect that if you had asked Hitler whether God approved of his actions, he would have answered in the affirmative. It's perfectly natural when you think about it. We all create God in our own image. Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, put it this way:
The war we are fighting until victory or the bitter end is in its deepest sense and war between Christ and Marx.
Did Saddam think Allah was on his side? I quite expect so.

So, religion won't defend us by giving us better dictators (although it might be more likely to give us less technologically sophisticated ones).

But what of the dictatorships that emerge with the consent or mandate of the people? What could compel people to willingly sacrifice their civil rights and participate in dark crimes of the state?

Fear and mob mentality. When fear strikes, people naturally seek the security of their tribe. When this happens, people naturally suspect any dissenter of treachery. The needs of the group outweigh the needs of any individual, be they man, woman or child.

Hitler was a power-hungry maniac who found something that worked: social manipulation through propaganda. The German people were encouraged to think (or, rather, not think) like a mob and be proud Christians in the process. Dissent was punished. Fear, dogma, propaganda, and ideology overruled the people's humanity, critical thinking and reason. Hermann Göring, infamous Nazi, explained why they it worked:
Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
And he might be right. Perhaps, it is in the nature of every state, even the democratic ones, to be vulnerable in this way.

Then again, maybe there's a hope that our citizenry might one day be more than faint-hearted lemmings. Maybe they will have the courage to put their fear aside, stick to their principles of rationality, and question what they are told. Such courage would be no certain defense against totalitarianism, but it would protect us from mandated dictatorship. From the next Hitler.

Will religion help or hurt?

In the Spring 2003 issue of Free Inquiry, Dr. Lawrence Britt cataloged the identifying traits of fascist governments. A few passages stand out:
  • Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottoes, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.
  • The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial, ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.
  • The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and anti-gay legislation and national policy.
  • Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to fund the arts.
One cannot miss the parallels between fascism and organized religion. Just substitute tribalism for nationalism. The more reactionary the religion, the more fascist it looks.

The central mission of religious institutions is indoctrination to dogma. Their aim is to provide a ready tribe, and to condemn dissenting views. Religions are monuments to the ideal that there are unquestionable moral authorities, and that systems based on blind obedience are not just to be tolerated but revered. Indeed, most churches of organized religion claim that a dictator runs the universe for his pleasure and our pain.

So, how exactly is a microcosm of fascism going to teach us to eschew fascism? Of course, it will do no such thing.

Could religion's authoritarian influences be neutralized by their espousal of humanism and non-violence? This is wishful thinking. Religions actively support our wars (whether just or not), and right-wing religious groups have no problem with torture of prisoners (after all, the prisoners are obviously terrorists, or they would never have been arrested). The most prominent American religions always seek punishment, including the death penalty, even when alternatives like forgiveness might result in better social outcomes.

These are not the values of liberal democracy. They are the values of totalitarian states, like Iran. Democracy has only advanced by building a wall between church and state.

Thus, contrary to D'Souza's conclusion, most organized religions groom their flocks for dictators, whether those tyrants be atheist or religious.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Emergence and Reductionism

Stuart Kauffman has written a piece on emergence and reductionism for the Edge eZine. Edge is a very cool magazine, and I recommend picking up a free email subscription if you don't have one.

Kauffman claims that reductionism is out of steam, and suggests that emergence provides the answers that reductionism cannot. Kauffman cites three examples, the first of which is the origin of life.
Clearly none of the theories above is adequate. But one gets the firm sense that science is moving in on possible routes to the origin of life on earth. If some combination of the metabolism, polymer autocatalysis and lipid first view can be formulated and tested in a new "Systems Chemistry", we may find the answers we seek.

Suppose we do. It will be a scientific triumph of course. But if such self reproducing and, via heritable variations, evolving systems are formed, are they ontologically emergent with respect to physics? I believe the answer is yes.
Kauffman backs up his claim by arguing that natural selection can run on multiple physical platforms, as long as those platforms are self reproducing and have heritable variations. Intuitively, he seems to be on to something. The problem is that if we take emergence to mean the emergence of higher level properties from lower level ones, then metals are an ontologically emergent feature of atomic physics. And orbits are an emergent feature of gravitional attraction (orbits can occur under electromagnetic attraction).

Kauffman tries to distinguish emergence from reductionistic pictures by looking to see if the emergent feature can possibly be shown to emerge algorithmically from low-level physics. He says:
Note that while the physicist might deduce that a specific set of molecules was self reproducing, and had heritable variations and instantiated natural selection, one cannot deduce natural selection from the specific physics of any specific case(s), or even this universe, alone.
I find this rather baffling. Does Kauffman mean that you can't see evolution in a single organism? Does he mean that a molecular model that shows evolutionary processes is current beyond tractability? If we apply this rule to chemistry, we will find that water does not reduce to H2O because molecular models of fountains and waterfalls are presently intractable. I can't imagine a definition of emergence that Kauffman could using that wouldn't dispel the notion of reduction altogether.

Kauffman's second example is agency. Of meaning and value for agents he says:
They too are ontologically emergent. We have a natural place for value in a world of fact, for the world is not just fact: agents act on the world and actions are not just facts, for the action itself is a subset of the causal consequences of what occurs during an act, and that relevant subset cannot be deduced from physics.
Kauffman really ought to add the word "today" to then end of that sentence. This is a tired old poem about how meaning and value seem like more than facts, so they can't also be made of facts. Sort of like the way diamonds seem like so much more than charcoal, so diamonds and charcoal can't be the same stuff.

Indeed, the diamond example illustrates just how reductionism is often misunderstood. Diamonds are not charcoal. That's not what reductionism says. Reductionism is the idea that diamonds and charcoal are different forms or arrangements of the same component, carbon. Failure to appreciate this leads to what Daniel Dennett calls greedy reductionism - the idea that reductionism equates different configurations of the low-level components. Greedy reductionists hold that since dishwashers and paintings are the "same stuff," there is no such property as 'dishwasherness' or 'paintingness', and that it is irrational to treat them any differently. Clearly, this is not the case. We don't create galleries of fine dishwashers, nor do we dry our dishes with masterworks because the utility of each class of object is different. That is, stuff has different value to us humans depending on its configuration.

On the issue of consciousness, Kauffman argues that the mind cannot be a machine if it does not use algorithms. Devising a fairly mundane mechanical arrangement to prevent his computer from being upset by an unfortunate cable pull, Kauffman says:
So I invented a solution. I jammed the cord into one of the cracks and pulled it tight so that my family would not be able to pull the computer off the table. Now it seems to me that there is no way to turn this Herculian mental performance into an algorithm. How would one bound the features of the situation finitely? How would one even list the features of the table in a denumerably infinite list? One cannot. Thus it seems to me that no algorithm was performed. As a broader case, we are all familiar with struggling to formulate a problem. Do you remotely think that your struggle is an effective "mechanical" or algorithmic procedure? I do not.
There are several misconceptions captured in this single paragraph. First of all, we don't need an exhaustive definition of table in order to process information about a table. We only need a description that has as much precision as we need for the task at hand. We don't care whether tables are secretly alive, or are naturally occurring plant formations. All we care about is their local utility. Yes, we can examine tables in seemingly endless detail, but that's not really relevant to the solution we're talking about.

Second, an algorithm that solves a problem doesn't need to prove it deductively. Evolution and natural selection are brilliant examples of this. Genetic programming solves problems without necessarily reaching a single, right answer. The proof of its rightness is in the tasting. The same is true of Kauffman's computer cabling contrivance. Not only is it not a unique solution to the general problem, but there are seemingly an infinite continuity of ways he could have positioned the cable at a molecular level. We might think that Kauffman is saying that statistical algorithms aren't algorithms at all, or that the presence of statistical algorithms renders reduction invalid. Yet, again, such a claim would invalidate all reductionist claims.

All of this means we need to agree on definitions of what constitutes reduction and what doesn't. After all, we might find we agree once we synchronize our terminology.

Steven Weinberg's definition is that, in reductionism, "explanatory arrows always point downward." What does this mean? Well, an explanation requires a predictive model. The model needs to contain a number of components that doesn't exceed the possible number of observations we can make. (If it were to do so, it would degenerate into a restatement of observations as they happen.) Inevitably, a model will propose that there are a limited number of components or component families that have properties that predict (and thereby) explain the observation. In this way, we learn that high-level observations can be explained in terms of lower level entities that ought to have observable effects.

Is emergence the opposite of reductionism? Not necessarily. Diamond emerges from carbon, but that's not a counterexample to reductionism. As Kauffman suggests, there's also the notion epistemological emergence. Waterfalls are emergent, but we don't doubt that waterfalls are explained by, and reduce to, oxygen dihydride. We simply think that the computations necessary to simulate a waterfall are beyond our reach.

Kauffman also speaks of ontological emergence - the idea that emergent stuff is not reducible to other stuff, not even in principle. Thus, an ontological emergence of agency would mean that, in principle, we are prevented from constructing a predictive component model that would produce agency.

One of my problems with ontological emergence is that we don't get an explanatory arrow at all. If agency isn't explained by the stuff that appear to be necessary for it, then what explains agency? Are we to believe that agency is predicted by what it produces? That decisions get made, and decisions need agency, therefore, decisions are more fundamental than the agency which produced them?

This whole picture is quite bizarre. We are presented with some high-level concepts like life, agency, and consciousness, each of which are defined by their temporal function, i.e., their ability to do a certain kind of work in transforming a system at time zero to a new system at time t. We're then asked to accept that life, agency and consciousness are to be explained by a deeper need for things to grow, be decided, or be aware. As if a fundamental law of awareness predicts that there should be a mechanism by which things may be aware. This is very poetic, but does anyone really find this explanatory?

Think about it. Is my agency explained by my need to use that agency to decide what to eat for breakfast? Is my conscious caused by my future need to be self-aware? Are present and developing faculties to be explained by their future function? The only thing I see emerging here is the delusion that present observations are explained merely by their future (as yet unknown) consequences. The emergent physics that makes me choose to eat Shredded Wheat for breakfast is explained by my resultant choice of eating it.

Kauffman's article expresses his discontent with reductionism, but it doesn't do anything more. Most importantly, it fails to establish any rigorous definition of emergence or how emergence delivers explanatory power. Just how does the explanatory arrow point from the future to the present without being either nonsensical or a triviality?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Predictive Explanations:
Are they necessary or sufficient?

In my debate about explanation at Thinking Christian, someone offered this link in criticism of my assertion that explanation requires prediction.

Carl Hempel developed a theory (the deductive-nomological, or DN model) in which the laws and boundary conditions of the explanans (the thing that does the explaining) must deductively imply the explanandum (the thing being explained). A slightly modified version of this is the inductive-statistical (IS) model which uses statistical generalizations instead of universal generalizations.

My model of explanation is very similar to the DN/IS model. The main difference is that, unlike the IS model, mine doesn't require that the regularity assert a high probability statistical generalization. Whereas Hempel's model is based on a parallel with logical deduction, my model is based on differentiation from trivial restatement of the explanandum.

I think there's an intuitive reason why Hempel's requirement that the probability be high can be relaxed. If you're going to claim probability of an outcome given certain initial conditions, it only makes sense that such a claim would be tested statistically over a sample size greater than one. This means that we can devise an experiment that statistically amplifies the variation of the probability distribution away from uniformity. Even if a law says that a child is 1% more likely to inherit a genetic ailment given the presence of the disease in a sibling, that slight variation can be amplified by doing a statistical survey of a large number of families. Not only can small variations in probability distributions be magnified by larger sample sizes, the mere statement of a probability distribution implicitly asserts that such a test is anticipated. This leads naturally into Bas van Fraassen's Constructive empiricism because we can take either a frequentist approach or a Bayesian approach to statements of probability.

After Hempel proposed the DN/IS model, several criticisms were brought up. It was claimed that there were some explanations that were not predictive (that DN/IS was not necessary), and that there were some theories that met the DN/IS conditions but that were not explanatory (that DN was not sufficient).

I have yet to find any potent instance either type of criticism.

Let's look at the sufficiency criticism first. One example is provided here:
Since smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years does not actually make it probable that a person will contract lung cancer, it follows from Hempel's theory that a statistical law about smoking will not be involved in an IS explanation of the occurrence of lung cancer.
This claim stems from Hempel's original IS constraint that the laws and boundary conditions of the model must predict the explanandum with high probability. Since my model doesn't require large variations in probability distributions, the criticism falls flat.

The second criticism is that of insufficiency. These arguments purport to show valid DN/IS explanations that are not truly explanatory because they have failed to capture the causality involved. Here's Wesley Salmon's classic:
C1. Butch takes birth control pills.
C2: Butch is a man.
L1: No man who takes birth control pills becomes pregnant.
E: Butch has not become pregnant.

The birth control example presumes that the person stating the problem has observed pregnancy in humans, but has not noticed (and thus does not know) that only women have ever been pregnant. He also notices that a particular man is taking birth control pills and the man has not become pregnant.

In my opinion, the explanation that the pills prevent him from becoming pregnant is a perfectly valid candidate for an explanation, but it's simply not the best (or the correct) explanation.

Salmon's example only appears to counter Hempel because we intuitively apply our background knowledge that men don't get pregnant. That's another law L2 that was not included in L1. If you assume L2, then L1 is superfluous. The point is that Hempel is perfectly correct if you assume the theorist doesn't know L2, and doesn't include L2 in his explanation.

Another set of arguments tries to show that symmetry of cause is a problem for Hempel. Normally, we would explain the length of a shadow cast by a flagpole in terms of the elevation of the Sun and the height of the flagpole. Suppose instead we try to explain the height of a flagpole in terms of the length of the shadow it casts and the elevation of the Sun. The formulas can be inverted and we can express the law fixing the height as a function of the other two variables.

Given our background knowledge that the shadow is the caused by the other two factors, we are intuitively aware that the inverted explanation is kooky, despite the fact that it meets the DN criteria. But what would happen if we didn't have that background knowledge?

The same thing will occur in any investigation in which the order of causality is ambiguous (does A cause B, or B cause A or do they have a common third cause?). If, in reality, we have yet to discover that A actually causes B, this unknown fact does not mean that the theory that B causes A does not qualify as a possible explanation for the observation. It simply means that the theory that B causes A is the wrong explanation, even though it is explanatory.

On what criteria do we distinguish A causing B from B causing A? There are several. The first is a time dependence such that A pre-exists before B or vice versa. In the case of the flagpole, we can detect that the photons travel in a time-dependent way from the Sun to the flagpole, establishing the shadow as the caused factor.

The second is that, if we detect a relation among three variables, A, B and C, and we learn that A is fixed, then we tend to reject A as being caused by the other factors. In the intuitively kooky explanation, once we find that the explanation always predicts the height of the flagpole to be a constant, we would prefer by convention to argue that the height is not the effect, but a cause. In the absence of seeing one factor pre-exist before the others, the more constant a factor, the earlier we prefer to place it in a causal chain.

So, again, what we have here is a failure to isolate the experiment from background knowledge. If we only ever saw the Sun at one elevation, the flagpole at one height, and the shadow at one length, we would not have enough information to divine an order of causality. In that scenario, the theorist will be quite justified in explaining any one factor in terms of the other two. He only prefers one explanation to the others once he makes a deeper (far deeper) investigation.

Prediction and Explanation:
A Recapitulation

The following is based on a comment I wrote at Thinking Christian.
Suppose we make a set of observations, O1, O2, O3, ...On. Each observation could be physical or mental, i.e., they are experiences of any kind. We devise consistent theories, {Ti}, that claim to account for the {Oi}. There are trivial and non-explanatory theories among them. One says this:
T1: You will observe O1, O2, O3,... On.

This theory is trivial. If we observe some new Oj, we just amend the theory to:
T1: You will observe O1, O2, O3,... On and Oj.

Why can we do this? Because T1 is never inconsistent with any observation Oj we might possibly make.

T1 is not explanatory of the {Oi}, not by my definition, and presumably not by yours. If T1 were explanatory, then every collection of observations or experiences would be trivially self-explanatory.

So, how do we resolve this minor problem? What is it about a theory that makes it explanatory?

One guess is that explanations serve to compress observations. A theory can have the effect of being a short-hand for many observations. For example, instead of maintaining a long list of the timed locations of a billiard ball in motion, we can propose that the location of the billiard ball is a fixed function of time and the ball's initial conditions. That is, we can propose that there are relatively fixed laws of billiard ball motion that substitute for a long list of data points. This is precisely my analogy with fitting curves to points on a graph. Fitting a curve is not a restatement of the data because the curve predicts interpolations and extrapolations. Note also that there is a difference between, say, noticing that the data points fall on a straight line and claiming that they fall on the line for a reason. The first is an observation, and the latter is a prediction.

So, I am claiming that an explanatory theory predicts a subset of {Oi} from part of the remainder of {Oi}. For example, suppose I make these observations:
O1 = 1
O2 = 4
O3 = 9

My theory should predict O3 given O1 and/or O2, or predict O1 in terms of O2 and/or O3, etc. One theory that works here is
Oi = T(i) = i2

This not only predicts the already observed O1-O3, it also predicts O4, and O5 and O0 and O1.4 and so on. I can't think of any non-trivial theories that don't make predictions. Can you?

Suppose you observe the following:
O2 = 4
O4 = 16

What if we theorize that
Oi = T(i) = i2, for i=2 and i=4 only.

This theory has been carefully tailored not to make a prediction. Is this explanatory? No, it's just like T1. We've just done a trivial coordinate transformation on the data by expressing the {Oi} in terms of the square of a number instead of a direct value. It's a trivial restatement of the data. You might as well say that:
definition: T(i) = Oi

We're not explaining the observations, we're just saying that each succesive observation is given by a one-off rule that never applies to future observations. We would be drawing dots over your data points on your graph so as not to predict anything.

This is why an explanation never escapes making a prediction, for if it didn't, you could re-interpret the so-called explanation as a restatement of the data using a different coordinate system.

Remember, the {Oi} can be any form of experience, including a statistical measurement. This means that our predictions can be of a statistical nature, and that assertions of regularity needn't be large statistical effects. They could be assertions of very minor probability variations.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sources of Knowledge

In the course of a debate I've been having at Thinking Christian, a theist produced a link to Alvin Plantinga's critique of Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea:
Here Dennett seems to assume that if you can't show by reason that a given proposed source of truth is in fact reliable, then it is improper to accept the deliverances of that source. This assumption goes back to the Lockean, Enlightenment claim that, while there could indeed be such a thing as divine revelation, it would be irrational to accept any belief as divinely revealed unless we could give a good argument from reason that it was. But again, why think a thing like that? Take other sources of knowledge: rational intuition, memory, and perception, for example. Can we show by the first two that the third is in fact reliable--that is, without relying in anyway on the deliverances of the third? No, we can't; nor can we show by the first and third that memory is reliable, nor (of course) by perception and memory that rational intuition is. Nor can we give a decent, non-question-begging rational argument that reason itself is indeed reliable. Does it follow that there is something irrational in trusting these alleged sources, in accepting their deliverances? Certainly not. So why insist that it is irrational to accept, say, the Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit unless we can give a rationally conclusive argument for the conclusion that there is indeed such a thing, and that what it delivers is the truth? Why treat these alleged sources differently? Is there anything but arbitrariness in insisting that any alleged source of truth must justify itself at the bar of rational intuition, perception and memory? Perhaps God has given us several different sources of knowledge about the world, and none of them can be shown to be reliable using only the resources of the others.
My first observation was that Plantinga sees that reason relies on certain unprovable axioms, without all of which, no reasoned conclusion can be reached. This is a good start. Plantinga claims the axioms are logic, memory, and perception, but I suspect these equate to my axioms of logic, regularity, and the axiomatic nature of experience (that experiences need to be explained).

Plantinga then argues that, since we are comfortable accepting these axioms without proof, why not accept additional axioms (e.g., that there are non-rational sources of knowledge)? Maybe "Internal Testimony" (whatever that is supposed to mean), is just an extra-rational assumption, rather than an irrational one.

Alternate Sources of Knowledge
Assuming that knowledge is defined as justified true belief, what does rationality say about sources of knowledge?

If I have some source of knowledge, S, then I am saying that there is some associated test, TS, I can apply to a proposition, P, to test its truth:
S: Truth(P) = TS(P)

I am also saying that there is some (potentially different) form of justification for belief in P:
S: Justification(P) = JS(P)

In the case of science, justification and test are one. The truth of a scientific belief is fixed by the test of its truth.

If I have multiple sources of knowledge, then I may have multiple definitions of the truth:
S1: Truth(P) = TS1(P)
S1: Justification(P) = JS1(P)

S2: Truth(P) = TS2(P)
S2: Justification(P) = JS2(P)

At this point, I'm going to assume that S1 is science and S2 is supernaturalism. This means I can write:
S1: Truth(P) = Justification(P) = TS1(P)

S2: Truth(P) = TS2(P)
S2: Justification(P) = JS2(P)

There's no guarantee that a truth from one source of knowledge is a truth in the other. An intuitive personal truth (one tested by asking a person for his opinion) may not be a scientific truth. Thus, in general, the "truth" of a proposition has no fixed meaning when there is no preferred source of knowledge.

There are three ways to avoid the problem of propositions having no truth values:

1) Assume that there is only one source of knowledge. In this case, most of us would likely choose science.

2) Assume that there are multiple sources of knowledge, but that they should all agree on the truth of any applicable proposition. This means that:
TS1(P) = TS2(P)

3) Assume that no single proposition can be evaluated by every source. That no truth value revealed by S1 can be revealed by S2, and vice versa. This might be akin to Stephen Jay Gould's Non-overlapping Magisteria.

I'm pretty sure theists would reject (1). I won't entertain the claim that science is not the preferred source of knowledge where available because no one reading this blog could consistently make that claim.

This means that either (2) or (3) is the case.

Overlapping Magisteria
Case (2) is ruled out because supernatural knowledge sources are broadly inconsistent with scientific ones where they overlap. Psychics and miracles are routinely shown to be fraudulent, and supernatural sensation isn't any better than guessing. Thus, we have ample evidence that supernatural knowledge sources fail to give the same truth values as scientific methods, as would be expected in case (2).

Non-Overlapping Magisteria
Case (3) is problematic for the theist because it means that any question that can potentially be settled by predictive means cannot be answered by a supernatural source. Indeed, it means that any phenomenon that one claims to know through supernatural methods must be unknowable through natural methods. I think this is one reason why theists assert that the mind cannot be purely physical, for otherwise, there would be no meaningful truth claims about supernatural souls.

As is well known, history's trash heap is littered with supernatural beliefs that were displaced by scientific truths, and the boundary of the supernatural domain has been in monotonic retreat for centuries. Still, the inductive inference that all supernatural claims are rot isn't deductive proof that they are rot. So, let's suppose that there is a domain, non-overlapping with science, in which supernatural sensation does reveal the truth (at least, most of the time). It is implicit in a knowledge claim (supernatural or otherwise) that the knowledge will be true as well as justified. Can we not then ask science to assess the efficacy of the supernatural knowledge source?

Symbolically, what we're evaluating is this:
S1: Truth(S2 is effective) = TS1(S2 is effective)

If it were possible for S1 to find S2 to be ineffective, then the space of truths of S2 would overlap (and potentially conflict) with those of S1 because S2 also implicitly asserts that it is effective. This would violate the premise that S1 and S2 don't overlap.

Therefore, S2 cannot give an answer that S1 might later determine to have been wrong. Thus, a fortune-teller cannot tell me that I'll be a millionaire by age 30 because I could use scientific means to know that he was wrong, and the fortune-teller implicitly claims he is right (i.e., he claims that his knowledge is not just supernaturally justified, but true). Unfortunately, this principle also negates all knowledge about future experience derived by S2 because such knowledge could be falsified by S1.

The practical upshot of all this is that S2 is unable to tell me anything about future experience. So why should I care what S2 has to say?

I might care about what S2 says if the execution of the method of S2 is a source of amusement. Is this why TV commercials for psychic hotlines display a "for entertainment only" disclaimer?

Science and Rationality
The beautiful thing about science (apart from the fact that it works) is that it is derived from rationality itself. In assuming that science is a source of knowledge, what am I assuming? I am assuming that I can make inductive inferences from past experience to predict future experience. Can I drop this assumption without destroying rationality itself?

If I assume that past experience is no guide to future experience, why should I assume that a theorem that I have just deductively proven true won't be false before I perform the next step in a proof? I cannot. I must assume that past experience, whether mental or physical, is a guide to future experience. Once I make this assumption for purposes of rationality, science automatically follows.

I have shown that supernatural sources of knowledge are either totally unreliable, or can only tell me about things that are irrelevant to experience. I have shown that science as a source of knowledge follows from the assumed axioms of rationality.

If science is accepted as the primary source of knowledge in any domain, it is the only relevant source knowledge about experience.

Nov 14 2006 Clarification: Science here refers to methods of deductive and inductive inference. It could be mathematics as easily as it is physics or linguistics.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Odds and Ends

Newsweek has been publishing intelligent pieces on atheism recently. Today I saw this story on the Beyond Belief conference in La Jolla, California.
It's hard to be a skeptic, that much was clear from the conference. Hard for the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, who described trying to offer up thanks "to the scientists who made this abundance of food possible" at a friend's Thanksgiving dinner, only to be shouted down by demands for a proper grace. Hard for atheist author Sam Harris ("Letter to a Christian Nation") who likes to point out that people today believe in God based on no more evidence than the ancients had for believing in Zeus or Poseidon—with the result that in addition to all the mail he gets from Christians, he's now getting angry letters from pagans who claim he's insulted their beliefs, as well.
Man, I love these guys.

Newsweek also recently published a very short bit about Sam Harris for their BeliefWatch column.

And I love this:

Friday, November 10, 2006

Post Election Post

Overall, the elections went well, even though there were several races I was very disappointed to lose.

We now have to use our victory to best advantage, and that means explaining to Americans just how horrible Bush and the Republicans have been for the last 6 years.

The American people don't like political games. Americans were passive in the face of Watergate. That was until the official wheels of justice began to turn, and serious crimes were found to have been committed. When this happens, the American people back prosecution. That's where House subpoena power comes in. I'm sure there's a lot of shredding taking place in Republican offices in Washington D.C. this week.

Many are uncomfortable at prosecuting Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Miller for war crimes. I am not. I don't see why we ought to protect our own war criminals, while we chastise other nations for doing the same. Some will ask whether it is right that Bush et al be punished while Osama bin Laden goes free? Well, if Bush had caught Osama, this wouldn't be an obstacle, would it?

I think the Dems should tentatively plan to have the articles of impeachment lined-up for about 18 months from now. They don't need to dive in and start all the investigations on day one. Shameful revelations of Republican crimes occur about once a month, and it's not perceived as partisan to investigate them as the stories break. Eighteen months from now, thanks to new Republican scandals, we'll probably have a dozen House investigations in full swing, and an independent prosecutor.

By 2008, the bankruptcy of Republican authoritarianism will be plain to see, even to the average American voter.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Has America Lost Its Luck?

There's a nice column by Michael Hirsh over at Newsweek:
What a glorious couple of centuries it has been, all held together by this great string of luck. "The Lord looks after drunks, children and the U.S.A." went the old saying, and it seemed true. But the thing about luck is that, eventually, you run out of it. Everybody craps out in the end. And that is what has happened to us. As Americans go to the polls Tuesday we must confront the fact that we have become a luckless people, all across the political spectrum.


But at a moment in history when we faced the most subtle sort of global threat, when we needed not just a willingness to use military force but a leader of real brilliance—someone who would carefully study a little-understood enemy—we got a man who actually took pride in his lack of studiousness. No surprise: Bush never once presided over a grand-strategy session to divine the nature of Al Qaeda, and he ended up lumping Saddam and every Islamist insurgent and terrorist group with Osama bin Laden. He ensured that a tiny fringe group that had been hounded into Afghanistan with no place left to go—one that could have been wiped out had we focused on the task at hand—would spread worldwide and become a generational Islamist threat.
Not that one could not have predicted what we're seeing now. Maybe the press couldn't believe the news they were supposed to report. They refused to call a dolt a dolt. Without the press bold enough to tell the truth, a lot of Americans went to the polls and elected an anti-intellectual simpleton. They elected a Forrest Gump to lead a nation composed largely of Forrest Gumps who think pure intentions are better than good intentions plus intelligence and expertise.

Hirsh is right, but he's six years too late.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Is it wrong for a woman to dress in a sexually arousing manner lest it lead to objectification? This has been the topic of discussion (and, sometimes, non-discussion) over at Signs of the Times (here and here).

When I see a woman who displays her sexuality openly, I don't leap to the conclusion that she is a sex object and nothing else. For all I know, she might be a doctor, lawyer, history professor or CEO. Certainly, she is also a human person. To think otherwise would be for me to "objectify" her.

Of course, there is a minority of folks who will objectify her for her fashion choice. There are two reasons why one might think the existence of this minority ought to cause women to suppress their sexuality. First, one might think that the unpleasantness of being objectified by a fool outweighs the pleasantness of a sexual display. I don't think very many believe the scales tip this way. Most would argue that the woman runs her life, not the fools.

A second reason for women to suppress their sexuality in light of foolishness would be to avoid reinforcing the stereotype that a woman who dresses scantily is just an object through and through. If open sexuality were a reinforcer of the stereotype, it still wouldn't override a woman's right to live as she sees fit. After all, the problem with the stereotype is that it limits a woman's freedom, so supppressing that freedom is like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The interesting thing that occurred to me during this debate is that public displays of sexuality ("hoochification") actually do work to overcome the objectifying stereotype. How will objectifiers learn that open sexuality is not mutually-exclusive of humanity without observing open sexuality in the presence of humanity?

[If S->~H, the falsifying pattern is (S ^ H). The theory cannot be falsified if S is never present.]

Indeed, dehoochification retards women's rights. I don't think the objectifying stereotype would vanish if we put women in burqas for 25 years. I suspect the reverse would result, and women who exposed their faces after 25 years of suppression would be seen as nothing but sluts (c.f., Iran).

I'm not saying that everyone ought to display their sexuality publicly and at all times. I'm just saying that there's nothing wrong with some people doing so some of the time.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


George W. Bush goes on record as claiming space for the American empire.

This president is diplomatically retarded. Such a message plays well only to right-wing nut jobs. To everyone else in the world it looks arrogant and disrespectful. Why? Because the president doesn't need to broadcast this message. The U.S. just needs to be aware of national security threats, and take competent, subtle, persuasive or interdiction actions to defend against them. Do China and India make pronouncements like this? Of course they don't. Do we expect them to act as we would in their place? Sure we do. It's expected that every nation will take the steps it considers vital to its security interests. Blabbering about it on the world stage is counter-productive.

Teddy Roosevelt said America should speak softly and carry a big stick. Bush speaks loudly, and, if W has a stick, it's looking more and more impotent every day. Is Bush going to stop others from accessing space the same way he stops Iran and North Korea from getting nukes? That's what the world is thinking right now. America is an idiocracy.

The real national security threat is Bush himself. He doesn't promote competent people to positions of responsibility, he promotes sycophants to key government positions. He promotes people who will show loyalty to him, regardless of their competence for the job.

Speaking of incompetence, you may have heard that Rumsfeld has taken responsibility for the Iraq debacle. That's a little presumptuous, in my opinion. He's only responsible for about 80% of it. However, as a Republican, he's sure as Hell not going to be held accountable for what he's responsible for. Rumsfeld won't resign or change course. (What's that saying about doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results?) Osama bin Laden couldn't have asked for a better Secretary of Defense. Heckuva job, Rummy!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

What Is Fundamentalism?

According to my definition, a fundamentalist is someone who prefers to take knowledge from authority rather than from experience.

Creationists are the textbook case of fundamentalism. They'll spare no effort to discredit the science that falsifies literal biblical claims, but spend no effort justifying their belief in the authority of the Bible. If they were as skeptical of the Bible as they were of radiological dating, they would quickly denounce the Bible as a work of fiction.

Fundamentalism is not just another form of irrationality. It's irrationality with conviction. Fundamentalism has no corrective mechanism. How does the fundamentalist know that his authority is, well, authoritative? Apparently, not by experience. Without correction, we cannot claim commitment to the truth because we reject a priori any possibility that we could be wrong.

The Christian fundamentalist cannot complain that Osama bin Laden is using the wrong epistemology. bin Laden is using the very same epistemology as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Reason and experience are equally unimportant to all three of these clowns because each will carefully fold his experience to fit into his holy box.

The problem with every fundamentalism is that it results in unnecessary conflict. Instead of reaching consensus based on shared experience, the fundamentalist regards shared experience as either threatening or subservient to his unchangeable prior beliefs.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

An Objective Morality

I define a an objective claim as one whose truth does not depend on what persons think its truth ought to be. Previously, I wondered whether this definition precluded the possibility of an objective morality, but I've just realized that this isn't the case.

In physics, we correlate initial states with final states. Based on observations of the initial state, we predict attributes of the final state. Physics is objective because we can test physical laws independently of how we feel about those laws. We can even control our experiments by limiting the knowledge of the experimentalists performing the work. We can look at the radioactive decay rates of different isotopes, and it doesn't matter whether I think Carbon 14 ought to decay faster than Plutonium 238, it simply doesn't.

So, what would be the equivalent for moral objectivity?

Two different moral histories can result in the same physical intermediate state. If morality were objective, then observers could see the intermediate physical state evolve into different physical final states with different moral values.

For example, suppose we obtain two apparently identical tanks of heating oil. The tanks will be used to heat the ACME Corp warehouse. One tank is paid for by monies secretly stolen from the local orphanage. The other tank is paid for from the ACME coffers. If morality is objective, then we might expect that the two tanks of heating oil will have different caloric outputs. Maybe, the tank funded by ill-gotten money will generate less energy than the tank paid for out of the ACME bank account.

One can argue that the experiment won't work because we arranged to have the money stolen from the orphanage as part of the experiment. However, we can design other experiments that will bypass this problem.

Maybe stolen appliances will be more vulnerable to malfunction and failure than appliances purchased at a fair price. Or, what if guns and ammunition used by terrorists will be less effective, less accurate than weapons used by security forces? Does fair trade coffee always taste better than unfair trade coffee? Would medical knowledge obtained through cruel experimentation on humans work less effectively than the same knowledge obtained through ethical practices?

A priori, the world might have demonstrated such objective morality. In reality, this is simply not the case. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Physics turns out to be independent of the moral history of the initial state. There is no universal justice as far as we can determine, and so morality is a property of our personal feelings, not a property of actions or things in and of themselves.

Christians will claim that everything gets balanced out in the hereafter, but this is just irrational. Claiming that universal justice exists is like claiming that cucumber sandwiches are conserved and that eating a cucumber sandwich on Earth results in the appearance of an identical sandwich on the other side of the galaxy. If we are to believe in objective morality, we ought also to believe in sandwich conservation laws, too.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Get Back To Me When You Have Some Answers

Last night, I watched The God Who Wasn't There, and it had a greater effect on me than I anticipated.

I have long doubted that Jesus actually existed, so the claim that he didn't exist wasn't a big shock for me. News to me was the fact that Paul's letters, the only writings that bridge the 40-year gap between Jesus' supposed ascension and the appearance of the first Gospels, make no mention of any events of Jesus' life save for the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension. This fact just makes the New Testament that much more implausible. However, the thing that really got to me was the patent absurdity of the theistic position. Why am I spending so much time "lobbying for reality," as Ellen Johnson would say?

As I've written before, philosophical debate is a matter of validating consistency and comparing foundational assumptions. It's important to explore both one's own assumptions and reasoning, and those of one's opponent. One may find that both philosophies are consistent, but each side disagrees about their respective axioms. The problem that I am finding is that theists refuse to honestly assess their own axioms. What assumptions does the theist truly make in order to reach his conclusion? They themselves do not appear to know.

Instead of facing their assumptions head-on, the theists accuse me of begging the question, that is, of lining up my definitions and starting points so that my conclusion is inevitable. In retrospect, this is really quite flattering. If my assumptions lead inevitably to my conclusion, then they are merely verifying my logic. If they disagree, it is their duty as philosophers to challenge the assumptions and provide alternatives. This, unfortunately, is where they fail.

Why is this important? Because rational debate requires intersubjective claims. If you want to claim that the Moon is made of cheese, you're free to do that, but don't pretend you have rational reasons why I should believe you. Dispense with reason if you must, but I shall enjoy tar and feathering you when you do.

In the following, I shall present several definitions and axioms that I have used in argumentation. Theists will find each of them, at face value, eminently reasonable. At least, that is, until they realize that it annihilates supernatural belief. Being wedded to such beliefs, the theist must declare the definition or assumption invalid. That's fine. But get back to me when you have an alternative definition that you can live with.

Objectivity and Moral Destinations
I've been debating Christians and theists solidly for the last two years, and I've learned a lot about my position and theirs.

Overall, theistic arguments appear driven by a need to reach a particular moral position. Specifically, theists demand that we have free will and can be held accountable against an objective morality reality. From my perspective, theistic positions are derived from deep fears about the consequences of moral relativism. Not that it's bad to fear consequences of ideology. After all, I feel the same way about their position. The difference between us is that I fear a particular moral epistemology, and they fear humanity. I'll try to explain.

I have yet to see any moral phenomenon that cannot be explained by a morally relativistic system. Under moral relativism, we expect to see the same police and legal institutions that we see today. This isn't obvious, and I think it is the fear that moral relativism will somehow discount law and order that prevents the theist from looking at the question dispassionately. Theists prefer that there be an absolute, black-and-white definition of good and evil. They are compelled to seek out objective moral systems because they don't trust humans to act benevolently without them.

Of course, if morality is objective, then there can be legitimate moral authorities in the same way that there can be legitimate scientific authorities. For example, when the scientific community demonstrates that power transmission lines are radiation-safe, I have good cause to believe them. At any time, I can investigate the scientific process that led to this conclusion, and verify its integrity. The science could be wrong, but I can exercise due diligence in certifying its conclusions as the best available answer.

Not so for morality. Religious morality is some combination of the moral feelings of authoritarian humans combined with the "revealed" moral feelings of a supernatural authoritarian figure. There's no transparency, and epistemic due-diligence is actively discouraged by religious moral authorities. Now, a religious system of morality might turn out to be liked by many people. It might even be humanistic from time to time. However, if it's right, then it's not right because the methodology was right. If the authoritarian methodology is right, then why fault Osama bin Laden et al for their murderous morality? They have as much claim to authoritarian moral truth as anybody else.

How are men persuaded to accept authoritarian moralities? (I mean in discourse, as opposed to at the point of a gun or by familial brainwashing.) "Vote for Jesus because then there won't be murders!" To call this circularity hare-brained would be an insult to leporids. If murder being subjectively bad is justification for a position, then one is acknowledging the value of subjective sentiment in setting policy. There's no need to import a lot of other childish and irrelevant baggage with common sentiment. Sexual freedom isn't intrinsically bad, women aren't intrinsically unclean or inferior, and undetectable beings don't exist.

Again, in argumentation, the only justification for moral positions come from subjective moral feelings. So how can theists assert that morality is objective? By rejecting the common definition of the word objective:
A proposition is objective when its truth is independent of what I, the observer, think it ought to be.
Question-begging? If you like, Mr. Theist, but what's your alternative definition of objective, and what follows from your alternative?

Meaning and Precision
The old canard about logical positivism is that its verifiability theory of meaning failed to meet its own criterion. I have dealt with this subject numerous times before, so I'll just write up a short outline.
The meaning of a proposition, p, are those experiences that are implied and those experiences that are denied by p's truth. Further, any proposition that fails to imply both compatibilities and incompatibilities has no truth value at all.
It's really quite simple. The meaning of "2 + 2 = 4" relates to the experiences we will have that are consistent or inconsistent with the claim. Specifically, if we add two and two and get five, that experience is inconsistent with the claim. If you assert that a jaguar is in my garage, I had better find a Jaguar brand vehicle, an Anglo-French ground attack fighter, or a big old panther (or perhaps a representation of one of these) sitting in my garage. If I fail to find one of these, I ought to regard your proposition as false.

However, if you provide me with a proposition for which no experience can alter my confidence in its truth, then you haven't given me a meaningful proposition at all. It's literally about nothing. It's nonsense. Even you don't really know what it means.

Well, this all sounds pretty straightforward, so what is the metaphysician's objection? His objection is that this claim about meaning is not itself verifiable. There is no experience that ought to convince us that this is the one, true definition of meaning. Well, duh! It's a definition, and there are no true definitions, only conventional ones. The issue is whether the definition is meaningful by its own standards, and it most certainly is. When I declare that some roses are red is a meaningful proposition, I know what experiences are compatible with the claim. To wit, that I will experience a partial enumeration of experiences that are compatible (and a partial enumeration of experiences incompatible) with the claim that some roses are red. Likewise, when I claim that God is good is meaningless, I mean that the speaker denies that there should be any experience that is ever inconsistent with the claim.

Once these ideas are presented to the theist, what response do I get? Usually my opponent is called away at this stage. Pressing affairs of state or somesuch. Sometimes, I might get a complaint that this definition begs the question against the metaphysical. Again, I'm honored that my arguments have been found to be logically sound. The ball is in the theist's court. Will I hear a refutation in the form of a meaningful proposition for which no consequence is implied? Nope. Do I hear an alternative definition of meaning that admits metaphysical claims? Nope. I think I hear crickets.

I Demand an Explanation!
Anyone who has visited my blog with any regularity (thanks to the both of you, BTW!) understands where I'm coming from.
An explanation is a set of facts and rules that preferentially predicts the observation that's being explained (the explicandum). That is, every explanation relies on some predictive law under which the prior conditions must (or preferentially) lead to what is actually observed.
Who named me the king of definitions, you might ask? Well, it's not just my definition, actually. Essentially, this is the definition of Hempel & Oppenheim.

"Begging the question!" shout the theists. "Of course God isn't explanatory by that definition of an explanation. No, there must be another definition that allows God to be explanatory!"

Yeah, well put up or end this pretense that theism is a rational enterprise. Under what definition of explanation is God explanatory? And, no, it cannot simply be an intuition. Intuition is not rational, not intersubjective and often wrong.

I'm not demanding that my opponents accept my definitions and my assumptions. Axioms cannot be proven. However, I like to think that my axioms do not extend beyond the bare minimum necessary for rational thought. These include logical consistency, that there exist discoverable laws, and that memory of experience is somewhat trustworthy.

[To clarify: I don't claim that every theory about our experiences should be trustworthy, only that we did actually have most of the experiences we think we did. A person's theory that Bigfoot trampled their peyote patch may not be true, but their vision of Bigfoot doing the mambo in their garden was actually experienced by them.]

What do I ask? I ask that my opponents make their definitions explicit. I ask that they honestly consider whether or not they can rationally live with their assumptions. If they accept such axioms, do they not open the door to beliefs that they find absurd or contradictory? If morality is objective, what isn't objective? If meaning has no fixed definition, is it impossible to mistake nonsense for meaningful content? How much pride should we feel in asserting an explanation that doesn't predict what's being explained? Inquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Reliability of Rationality Argument

For some reason, philosopher/theologian Alvin Plantinga is famous for his defenses of theism.

One argument that I've encountered once or twice is Plantinga's argument against naturalism. It argues that we should expect a low probability that evolution gave us reliable faculties for rational thought. The technical details of his argument have been well-refuted.

The first problem is that, frankly, human rationality isn't particularly reliable (as Plantinga himself demonstrates). However, any evolutionary process that creates thinking creatures is bound to create them with at least some rational capability. Without such capability, knowledge would be impossible, and the thinking process would have no advantage. In other words, it is all but certain that evolution would provide us with at least partial rationality.

Humans are capable of intuiting a distinction between the rational and irrational, and this provides a base from which they can amplify their rationality. This is much in the same way that humans find it difficult (non-intuitive) to do advanced mathematics, but they can succeed in this process through writing, symbolic manipulation and repetition. Thus, even having some rationality provides the necessary basis for high-reliability rationality.

The second problem is that Plantinga is claiming that we are more likely to be rational if theism is correct. This is rubbish. Introducing God removes any causal link between us and the deity that created us. Simply put, God isn't explanatory of our rationality because theism doesn't predict our rationality. As usual, theists can tune their theology so that we see what we see (e.g., humans are rational and fish aren't), but they never ever get any actual predictions, and their fine-tuned God accounts for exactly what we know to date, and never one thing more.

Responsibility Without Accountability

Hastert is playing the standard Republican game. Once found guilty of gross (even criminal) negligence, a Republican politician will make a public announcement accepting responsibility for his or her misdeed. However, the GOP pol will be very careful to avoid being held accountable for his actions. Responsibility without accountability. It's the new Republican motto.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


I just watched a PBS documentary about Apollo 8. At the conclusion of the 1968 mission, American flags were given out in celebration. A moment of true pride in what America could do, not just for itself, but for the world.

Today, the U.S. Congress voted to allow the President to define torture, to deny suspects any recourse if they are tortured beyond his definitions, and to deny suspects the right of habeus corpus.

The leader of the ignoble Americans who voted for this legislation accused the opposition of "supporting rights for terrorists." His implication being that any man, woman or child detained by the United States on terrorism charges is guilty. There are no "terrorist suspects" in his eyes. It simply remains for us to extract confessions from those we have imprisoned.

No American flags were handed out today.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Metapolitics Go-meme

This is a political map invented by Richard Chappell at Philosophy, et cetera. I've tried to plot my positions on the scales, but I'm not quite convinced that the scales have unambiguous meanings.

a) Liberalism - X - - - - - Radicalism (2/7)
Do the ends justify the means? Procedural liberals insist on the primacy of fair play and democratic process. Radicals care less about method, and more about getting the desired result.

b) Rationalism - - - X - - - Subjectivism (4/7)
Is there ever a "right answer" to political questions? Rationalists think that reasoned debate could, ideally, lead to consensus about the common good. Subjectivists see politics as a mere contest of wills, all rhetoric and power plays, where the goal is simply to have your individual preferences win through.

c) Direct - - - X - - - Representative Democracy (4/7)
Should power rest more with citizens or elected representatives?

d) Aggregation - - - - - X - Deliberation (6/7)
Should political decisions be reached by simply aggregating individuals' prior preferences, or by submitting reasons for deliberation and critical scrutiny?

e) Federalist - - - X - - - Globalist (4/7)
What's the most appropriate level for political decisions? Federalists favor local-level decision-making (which may vary across localities), in contrast to Globalists.

f) Libertarian - - - X - - - Authoritarian (4/7)
How much discretionary power should be allowed in politics? Libertarians favor greater (e.g. constitutional) constraints on the exercise of political power. Authoritarians (may include populists and paternalists) are the opposite.

g) Economic Left - X - - - - - Right (2/7)
How favorably do you view redistributive taxation and other typically "Left-wing" economic policies?
I find the problem with these surveys is that it's difficult to define the appropriate scope or time horizon for the question. For example, is scale (d) asking whether people should think about political decisions before voting on them? Is it asking whether they ought to prove that they have thought about them before they can vote? Is it asking whether it is presently practical to do so? Indeed, scales (c) and (d) seem closely related. We might feel better about direct democracy if voters were actually going to consider the issues in detail. Scale (b) is also related to (c) and (d), since reasoned debate is only going to achieve consensus if the voters are paying attention to the details (which they don't).

Maybe it would be better to grade how a person feels about individual involvement in the political process. Should (or can) individual citizens maintain enough interest and understanding of political issues to make informed decisions? If not, what mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that the system isn't radicalized by special interest groups?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Miracles (or how not to communicate with rational mortals)

A few months ago, there was a post over at Thinking Christian about the historical accuracy of the Resurrection of Jesus. This got me thinking about the inferences involved in reaching the conclusion that the Resurrection probably happened.

Intuitively, the Resurrection is significant because it is a very unusual event. We have never observed any other resurrections, so scientifically, we can estimate the odds at being around 1 in 10 billion. Or perhaps it's less likely still.

It is this improbability which has to be compared with alternative improbabilities in assessing whether we should infer that the Resurrection happened. For example, would someone write a story saying that it happened if it never occurred? Would the story have been embarrassing to the early church that promulgated it? Well, suppose that we assign a mere 1% chance that the story was fabricated, and another 1% chance that the church would have told a story that was embarrassing. Let's throw in another 1% improbability factor, just for fun. That brings us to 1 in a million odds that the story would have been written if it weren't true.

No help there. The story only becomes plausible when we reach 1 in 10 billion odds. After canceling factors, there's still only a 1 in 10,000 chance that the story is true. A rational person must conclude that the event probably didn't happen.

This isn't proof that the Resurrection didn't occur. It may have. It's simply not rational to conclude that it did.

If you're a god, what is the point of demonstrating your power in an unambiguous way to just a few people, when the rest of the world would be irrational to conclude that the witnesses were telling the truth?

What we have discovered here is a trap set by our intuitions. We intuitively think that miracles (highly improbable one-time events) are an appropriate way for a god to verify his status as deity. This intuition is flawed because it only works if the believer fails to be rational. Instead, the god should demonstrate his power in repeatable, scientifically testable ways, so that rational people will have reason to conclude he is at least god-like in capability.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Inside the Morality Room

Suppose I design a Morality Room to test your feelings about the morality of certain actions. In the room, I screen a movie showing an act, the consequences of that act, and the consequences of not acting. You then press the "Good" or "Evil" button to indicate whether you feel the act was good or evil.

So, when I show you a movie of your foiling a handbag-snatching attempt, and this leading to the thief's immediate arrest (instead of his striking again), you press the "Good" button.

[We can imagine variations on this theme, with movies showing multiple actions and scoring them each relative to one another. For now, the simple version will suffice.]

The Morality Room is a useful tool for illustrating how we can be confused when we consider counterfactuals.

The classic one is "how would you feel if you were aborted and never existed?" The movie shows you the alternatives, namely life as you know it, then life without you. By now, you have probably noticed the problem. You cannot objectively answer whether your non-existence was good, when you are the one existing to provide the answer. Your answer presumes your existence.

Another question is "would it be okay if you were murdered, assuming that you did not suffer, and the memories of others were erased to ensure you did not suffer?" Or, equivalently, "would it be okay if you ceased to exist if no one suffered directly on account of your non-existence?"

Again, this question cannot be answered by the room. You, the judge, will suffer when you see the movie, so you must answer that the act is evil.

What can we take from this? Well, I'm not saying that we ought not think that "disappearing" people, even painlessly, is not evil. It feels pretty evil to me. Instead, what we learn is that we cannot rationally reach the conclusion that an act is objectively good or evil when we are hypothetically indifferent to the act. We cannot objectively say that murder is wrong even when it happens to someone we don't know, when there is no suffering, and when we are unconscious of the event. It's too late, because we are already in the room and we've seen the movie. We can't be unconscious of the event and still answer the question.

This isn't to say that subjective morality isn't perfectly adequate. It is.
P.S. I can't have been the first person to think of this thought experiment. Anyone know of a reference to something more original?