Sunday, January 29, 2006

Intelligent Design is a Fraud

After many months of debating ID advocates online, I'm coming to the conclusion that ID proponents aren't just confused. They're like preachers: openly fraudulent.

Their mission has nothing to do with science, reason and explanation. It's about public relations, rhetoric and selling an idea to people who don't understand science. This is why their noise level in the debate is so disproportionate to the strength of their claims. The unqualified statement that "evolution and ID are both just theories" is a blatant lie.

ID's mission is based on the Church's long-standing principle that people should outsource their understanding of the world (and their morality) to "higher" authorities, despite the total inability of those authorities to back up their claims with evidence.

Since the Dover trial discredited ID as a fraud, the ID Web sites have been reduced to whining about the persecution they endure at the hands of what they regard as pro-atheist press (you have got to be kidding me).

I can hear Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers say in unison, "I told you so!"

Saturday, January 28, 2006

My Fellow Americans

Before the invasion of Iraq, Bush stacked the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) with campaign contributors instead of intelligence experts.

It remains so stacked, by the way.

I learned this not long after I learned that Bush had placed the Mine Safety and Health Administration under the control of the mining industry.

And you all know about FEMA. And the EPA. Though probably not much about the others.

Don't expect to hear much about this corruption on the TV news. The press gets much better ratings reporting on the aftermath - things like the war, trapped miners, unsafe air and drinking water, oil spills, vanishing animals, hurricane victims, and so on.

People, your government is corrupt and incompetent like never before. Your leaders have shamed you and your country. The United States - once a champion of innovation, democracy, can-do spirit and human rights - is now widely regarded as a dangerous, hypocritical nation. The American people now look like ignorant fools and cowardly bullies.

Don't be insulted. Don't laugh like a foolish teenager. Don't make excuses. Don't say you knew it all along, or that it's par for the course. Don't pretend this doesn't affect you or the ones you love. Don't say you're not responsible, or that nothing can be done.

Time's running out. Get involved. It's not someone else's problem. It's yours.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Well, I did it again. I went debating intelligent design proponents. I gotta quit doing that.

Still, I composed this interesting rant in the process. Consider it another lesson on explanation.

An explanation is a rule of implication. Cause A leads to effect B. If you see A, then B must happen.

Not "B can happen." "B must happen."

A scientific inference would be to observe A preceding B and theorize that A causes B.

A blind guess would be to observe only B, and claim A implies B.

Still, every explanation, even if guessed blindly, makes a prediction that cause A always implies B.

Having a lack of an explanation means that either 1) you cannot identify any such a rule, or 2) you postulate a rule such that every event has its own private, hidden cause (cause A is undetectable).

Hence, generic ID is NOT an explanation! It's not even a blind guess at an explanation. It proposes no testable rule of implication. Yes, an intelligent alien could have designed life on Earth! That's utterly trivial. The problem is that generic ID doesn't predict what we see. Generic ID doesn't imply the world must be as we see it. Generic ID is just compatible with what we see. As are lots of things.

A specific theory of ID has to predict the world we see, rather than some world we don't. A scientific theory of ID has to be experimentally testable, at least in principle. For example, say the aliens designed life for purpose X, using tools Y, at time T, leaving corresponding evidence E. You can have gaps in your ID theory, but it must make a prediction to be science.

ID always fails to do this because the designer is always God. God theories have an infinite number of free parameters, so fitting your God theory to an arbitrarily large number of observations still fails to make a prediction. It's like fitting a curve to points on a graph and somehow failing to predict any interpolated or extrapolated point. This is done by making your "curve" tautologically equal to the points to which you are fitting. It's not a theory or an explanation if it's just a restatement of your data.

ID tries to pull the wool over the eyes of the public by cooking up formulas that "detect design". How do they do this? They try to construct a function that returns true only on human artifacts and on biological mechanisms.

But this isn't science, my friends. If I cook up a function that returns true on typewriters and supernova remnants, have I proved that typewriters are capable of star formation? (Hint: No.) My function is just a paraphrasing of my prior observations of supernovas and typewriters.

Writing down a formula for kinetic energy (one half mass times velocity squared) doesn't make a theory. If I define Floopdedoo as mass-cubed times velocity squared, I haven't defined the law of Floopdedoo. It is no more than a mathematical transformation on my raw observations.

The theory is that the transformation can express a law of nature and make a prediction. Conservation of energy is a law. It is the statement that energy out must be equal to energy in. Must!

Similarly, a law of Floopdedoo, if there was one, would have to say that given Floopdedoo in, Floopdedoo out must be constrained (predicted).

So far ID has one or more formulas for "CSI". CSI is just a formula that returns true on things that look designed to humans. Well, that's just a formula, just a paraphrased observation. If you want a theory, the theory is that CSI is correlated with design in non-human artifacts (e.g., biological structures). So that's what ID has to substantiate. Of course, the only designed artifacts are human, so there's no way to test the formula except by seeing actual evidence that life was designed and built by aliens! CSI is a formula, it is not evidence in and of itself, no matter how well it correlates with human artifacts and biological structures. No matter how many times or how precisely you say life "looks designed", you still have no evidence.

In lieu of a scientific theory, ID is forced to make the claim that NDE is somehow broken. As if that lent any weight to ID's claims. NDE may be incomplete, but at least it's successfully predictive and explanatory. ID is neither.

Monday, January 16, 2006

wsj sux0rz

I tried a subscription to the WSJ once. Once.

I cancelled it because WSJ editorials are right-wing, reactionary, anti-humanist, wealth-worshipping dung.

Just like Give Up blog says.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The 24th Philosophers' Carnival

Woohoo! One of my posts made it into the 24th Philosophers' Carnival!

The Carnival is a regularly published collection of posts from philosophy blogs.

I haven't read all of this month's posts, but so far, I think my favorite (apart from mine :) ) is Ellis Seagh's Light and darkness: consciousness and reflex.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

My Dangerous Idea

I haven't finished reading all of the dangerous ideas at The Edge, but I wanted to write down my dangerous idea.

Later in this century, when we understand the mechanics of life, we will have the option of changing human nature. We will eventually be faced with a choice between life as usual and the very survival of intelligent life on this planet.

I see three possible options.
  1. Carry on as homo sapiens sapiens and eventually destroy the planet and every work of humanity.

  2. Enhance ourselves in a way that makes us less destructive.

  3. Enter a system where we humans have maximum freedom of thought, but no freedom of action in the physical world.

I see option 2 as not that much more survivable than option 1. Even if enhanced humans are smarter and have greater consensus, there might still be mental illness. When everyone can build their own weapons of mass destruction using their desktop PC and nanofactory, we have a problem.

That leaves option 3. This third option is an attempt to obtain the benefits of technology without rendering the system totally unstable (like Marvel Universe).

How could such a world be implemented?

We will want to have minimize restrictions on thought and information, but limit our individual ability to cause damage to others. Perhaps we humans will all live in the Happy Borg Collective(TM), where it takes broad consensus to act physically. Or maybe we'll all retire to the Happy Matrix(TM) and leave the work of galactic colonization to our operating system robots.

Hey, coming up with a dangerous idea is the easy part. Navigating the danger? That's hard!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Paul Steinhardt's 'This Old Universe'

I'm slowly making my way through The Edge ezine's question of the year. I highly recommend this article. It's the best collection of ideas I've seen since, well, last year's Edge question.

One of the entries I like is Paul Steinhardt's entry, It's a matter of time.

Cosmological fine-tuning is a rather complicated issue. There are a lot of constants in the universe, like the fine-structure constant that governs atomic energy levels, or the gravitational constant that binds galaxies together. These constants differ by many orders of magnitude, and these radical differences account for the difference in strength between gravity, electro-magnetism and nuclear forces. When we ask what the universe would look like if we varied these constants by even a little bit, we find that the modified universe can't support stars and galaxies, let alone people.

The instinctive reaction is to remark that the parameters of the universe have been fine-tuned for human life. However, this turns out to be a rather silly remark. Humans (and stars, and galaxies) are direct functions of the constants of the universe. You might say that we are representations of those constants. Our bodies are made of atoms forged in exploding stars that had no choice but to follow the laws of the universe that are governed by our universal constants. The odds that we find our universe consistent with ourselves are always 1:1.

However, we might still wonder why the constants of the universe occupy the position they do in parameter space. If you pick a car out of a parking lot at random and look at its odometer, you would be fairly surprised to find that the car had only 30 miles on it. It's not in the middle part of the distribution of cars. There are a lot more cars with between 20,000 and 21,000 miles on them than there are cars that have clocked 1 to 100 miles.

Physicists are left wondering why the constants are the way they are. It's not a problem per se, but it is a mystery. Ideally, we'll find that there is really just one fundamental constant in the universe, and that all of the other weird constants are inevitable results of simple natural laws. At present we have no such theory, but we do have some interesting schemes to make this "problem" go away.

If there are multiple universes, at least one for each possible set of constants, then there has to be a universe with constants like our universe has. Alternatively, if the universe is oscillating, the universe might be reborn in each Big Bang cycle with different constants. Eventually, the oscillations will map out all the parameter space, and we'll get a cosmic cycle like the one we're in. All these schemes work like the lottery. Though you might initially be surprised that you have won the lottery, you should not be so surprised when you consider that you've played the lottery billions of times.

Well, Paul Steinhardt has a somewhat more elegant lottery system. Steinhardt has proposed that the universe is much older than we think. That the Big Bang is not the beginning of time, but just one of many that have happened over a trillion years. In each cycle the cosmological constant changes slightly. At first this appears much like the oscillating universe lottery, except that Steinhardt's theory makes predictions! That makes it closer to the ideal theory that has universal constants emerging out of a much simpler theory.

Personally, I think that fine-tuning a bit of a non-problem. It's a good extra-credit question, but it doesn't make much sense to ask about the probability of a universe turning out like our own if there's only one universe. It is unclear to me what probability means in the absence of ensembles or repeated trials.

Telic Thoughts loses a limb. Mercifully.

Apparently, I have been banned from the Telic Thoughts Intelligent Design blog for being "troublesome."

I can only guess that my incessant requests for rational explanations got in the way of TT's primary mission: to whine and complain that supernaturalists can't get a "fair" hearing in the scientific community.

Well, good riddance to bad rubbish.

Oh, and the merciful part? I can finally say goodbye to that addictive debate. TT has cut off one of its limbs to free itself, and freed me with it. Woohoo!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Like Dawkins really needs my help

Since Intelligent Design (ID) got clobbered in last month's court ruling in Dover, PA, the ID blog Telic Thoughts has spent most of its time talking about anything but ID.

In a recent post, one of the resident bloggers pokes fun at Richard Dawkins' dangerous idea:
For years, Dawkins has preached the values of rationalism and the need to follow the evidence, even when it leads to uncomfortable conclusions. Yet here he is, explaining why he thinks adopting a certain position would be rational, yet acknowledging that he can’t adopt it itself.
This post was followed by 17 comments from ID advocates that seemed to have definite vein of contempt for materialism.

Being a deterministic machine, I couldn't help posting a reply of my own:

So, let's look at what Dawkins is saying.

Our actions are the result of two possible kinds of factors. Deterministic factors that are exclusively dependent on our environment, and a random factors (e.g., quantum indeterminacy) that are independent of the past.

The logical conclusion from this is that there is no absolute morality, and that "blame" and "retribution" are reproductively advantageous desires that evolution has wired into us. There is no absolute "ought," only an "is."

While there might not be anything we absolutely ought to do, we know empirically that there are certain things we want to do.

So, if I determine that a meteorite is going to hit your house, I may inform you that you "ought to move out of its way." However, I'm really saying that, "with some probability, you must move out of its way, if you want to live."

Of course, there is no absolute reason why you shouldn't stay home and become part of a pretty impact crater. In that case, presumably you were destined to become part of a crater. Yet, knowing that you are a not much more than a deterministic machine doesn't change the fact that you are a deterministic machine that doesn't like getting vaporized by meteorite impacts. And this knowledge doesn't preclude you from using my scientific arguments to achieve an emotional benefit by evacuating the house. So much for the supposed pointlessness of rational argument among deterministic agents.

Your criticism of Dawkins worldview comes from what you perceive to be the logical conclusion of that view, namely, some form of moral anarchy. Yet, this criticism is not only an illogical projection of the worldview, it is also an exclusively emotional argument against its truth.

First, the illogical projection. Whether the evil we see is materialistic or not, we must still make war against it if we are to satisfy our own desires for a better life. Materialism doesn't alter that war.

Second, the emotional grounding. Whether you like what you perceive as the the eventual consequences of materialism has no bearing on its truth. I'm confident that you would apply the same criteria to any materialist's dismissal of theism on the grounds that its consequences would appear unpleasant to him. In other words, I suspect that we all care enough about the truth to discover the truth though it may be unpleasant.

And what do the supernaturalists offer instead of materialism? Nothing coherent. If our actions are guided by unseen, external forces, then those forces too are either deterministic or random. The only escape is to deny the power of reason to analyze the world around us. To close our eyes, click our heels and wish that true and false were not the only options.

Naturally, I offer you no reason why you ought not do this. If you want to.

Friday, January 06, 2006

More creepy stuff

I heard on the radio yesterday morning about a company that can get anyone's cell phone records for $110. That's right. They can find out who you have been calling on your cell phone.

Fortunately, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich plans to propose legislation to ban this criminal breach of privacy.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

More on Explanation

I define an explanation as rule of implication that connects observations such that A => B. Think of A and B as pattern matches on observations, so that the rule looks like "state of affairs A causes state of affairs B." (Here, I use the term "cause" loosely, as there may be no time variable, e.g., as in geometry).

A set of observations without an explanation can be thought of as being either independent of any prior state or dependent on unknowable states. That is, an inexplicable set of observations has no detectable underlying rule of implication that connects members of the set. Every effect has its own hidden, independent cause. To the extent that we can say there's a function that predicts each observation, that function is tautologically fitted to each corresponding observation. The function "predicts" what you observe, no matter what you observe.

So, now let's consider scenarios in which we do have an explanation.

Since we are trying to explain our observations, we must find effect B within our observations.

Consider the cases where (i) we find cause A within our observations, and (ii) we do not find cause A in our observations.

(i) If A is found to predict B within our observations, then we have an inference from our observations, as well as a prediction about future events, namely, that A leads to B.

(ii) If we do not find A within our observations, then the explanation is not a scientific inference from our observations. That is, we have no reason to suspect that A causes B based on our observations.

Despite not being a scientific inference, we might still qualify our rule as a random guess at an explanation. Such a guess would predict that there was A prior to the observation of B.

However, if A is such that it leaves no evidential trace (A is said to be among a set of unknowable states), then the purported explanation appears no different from the non-explanation presented earlier.

I don't think that any of this sort of analysis is intuitive. We're used to thinking in very fuzzy terms about what constitutes an explanation. Some things feel like they're explanatory, when they are actually worse than random guesses.

The moral of the story is that if your explanation doesn't make any predictions, then it's not only worse than a random guess at an explanation, it's not even an explanation at all.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Supernatural Causation, and other card games

I've been debating intelligent design over at Telic Thoughts where recent discussion has turned to supernatural causation. Though there are a few fringe contributors who think that the supernatural can be scientifically validated, most ID proponents prefer to make the claim that ID does not inherently admit supernatural causation.

However, I think one can show that the generic form of ID that is used to attack evolutionary biology is indistinguishable from supernatural causation.

Suppose there were a "supernatural causation" (SC) hypothesis. The SC proponent claims that we will not find an explanation (directed or otherwise) for some subset of phenomena. That is, SC is a purely negative claim about all other scientific approaches to the phenomena in question.

The IDist, attempting to establish a difference between the ID and SC programs, will claim that, unlike SC, ID admits the possibility of natural intelligences that causally dictated the observed phenomena.

Yet, the SCist will counter that the IDist's proposal is mere handwaving, and that the IDist has the burden of demonstrating the detailed naturalistic mechanisms (forward planning, memory, data processing, manufacturing) that were behind the formation of life (or whatever else the SCist claims was poofed into existence). The SCist will demand of the IDist precisely what the IDists demand of the evolutionary biologists, i.e., no gaps.

As long as we are willing to accept that the lack of alternative explanations counts as confirmatory evidence for a "theory", we can't blame the SCists for demanding that IDists join the evolutionary biologists and "prove that the supernatural nature of the universe is illusory!"

The moral of the story is that ID must live by conventional, predictive scientific methods, or die by its own sword. If you admit meta-theories as scientific merely on the grounds that an alternative explanation would disprove them, then you have to acknowledge SC as a scientific program.

ID supporters have tried to support their claims using a Bayesian probability argument. The argument basically says that if experiments reduce confidence in the alternative to ID, then we should raise confidence in ID accordingly.

Omar put forward a similar claim at Telic Thoughts:

T1 = “No intelligent designer was involved in causing the existence of complex structures”

and let

T2 = “Some intelligent designer was involved in causing the existence of complex structures”

Note that if T1 is true, then the only remotely plausible way it can be true is for neo-Darwinian evolutionay theory (NDE) to be true. In other words, given the current state of our knowledge, if T1 is true, then NDE is true.

Thus, evidence against NDE is evidence against T1 (by virtue of the rule of inference modus tollens), and this is in turn evidence for T2.
I think there are two flaws in this argument. The first is that NDE isn't equivalent to T1. NDE proposes specific, predictive mechanisms that partially explain how life evolved without forward planning. NDE does not rule out design.

The second reason why the argument is flawed is that it relies upon an implicit and false assumption about the search space for mechanistic explanations of evolution.

There's a good (if long) analogy for why this argument for raising confidence in T2 is flawed in the general case.

Imagine that I have a deck of cards. I begin turning over cards, and after the first few cards are turned over, a pattern emerges. The deck appears to be largely a standard deck sorted in ascending order of rank, but the Spades have been replaced with identical Jokers.

Let's establish these theories:

Q1 = "this is a standard deck of cards sorted in order of rank, but Spades have been replaced with Jokers."

Q2 = "the Ace of Hearts has been removed and replaced with a Joker."

We turn over 30 cards, and Q1 is further validated, raising our confidence in Q1. Yet, still, the Ace of Hearts has not been seen. So, are we justified in raising our confidence in Q2?

If the deck had been randomly shuffled (and Q1 were false), we should be raising our confidence in Q2 as cards are overturned. This is because, without Q1, we would have no reason to expect that the Ace of Hearts should be at the end of the deck ("...if Q2 were false, on average, in a shuffled deck, we would have expected to find the Ace of Hearts by now").

However, our confidence in Q1 means that we don't expect to significantly raise our confidence in Q2 until we approach the end of the deck. So, our confidence in Q2 remains almost unchanged until the very end.

The reason why this works out the way it does is that Q2 makes no specific predictions along the way. As we make our way through an unsorted deck, our confidence in Q2 changes only because we can estimate the total number of cards in the deck, not because any sorting rule is predicted. That is, P(observation|Q2) is the same for any individual observation. It is only the integral over observations that hopes to change our confidence in Q2.

Comparing T2 to Q2, we see that P(observation|design) is similarly undifferentiated by any particular observation (T2 is not predictive of actual observations). Therefore, confidence in T2 can only be founded on some nebulous estimate of the likelihood we would have solved the puzzle of mechanistic evolution given the number of observations we have made so far. This is analogous to having made our way through most of a shuffled deck.

All this presents two problems for T2.

First, we have high confidence in several partial theories of evolutionary mechanisms, and those theories tell us that we have a considerable amount of computation and research to do (e.g., cracking the protein folding problem) to complete our research program. This is analogous to knowing that there are lot more cards in the deck.

Second, even if we had no confidence in evolutionary biology, we would still have no idea how much data is enough to make an inference to T2 given that your theory isn't predictive. This is analogous to ignorance of how many cards there are in the deck.

In the end, we see that we have to account for validated theories and for the expected size of the search space. Without accounting for these, we cannot gain confidence in theories that are founded on purely negative tests of other theories.

My first version of this post incorrectly stated that T1 and T2 were not mutually exclusive.