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?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Why We're Losing The War

The short answer is that ideology is trumping strategy.

Strategically, we need to look at the big picture. People fall into three categories: those who are sympathetic to us, those who fear us, and those who are hard core terrorists.

The sympathetic demographic is relatively unimportant.

The hard core terrorists are a tiny minority. They number in the thousands, and nothing we say or do will deter them from their mindless, murderous, faith-based initiative. The only way to deal with these people is to apprehend them or kill them in the process.

The demographic with the highest importance is the fearful one. There are at least a billion or more people who are unsympathetic to the United States because they fear American military intervention, and the abuse of American economic and political power. They may not like the terrorists, but they may see the terrorists as a reaction to a real threat, or as a counterbalance to American hegemony. The war in Iraq demonstrated to them that the US respected no one, and was willing to break all the rules in order to satiate its thirst for control.

This group, the fearful, is the real group we need to target. Not with bombs, but with candy and flowers, and with human rights and cultural respect. For every one-in-a-million of these US-fearing people we turn to terror, we create another thousand hard-core terrorists. If we fail to win hearts and minds among this demographic, we will LOSE!

Why does this fact elude the Bush administration? Bush has answered the question himself. He believes that this is an ideological war, and not a psychological one. For Bush, it's about looking and acting tough. About giving no quarter to active terrorists. He doesn't understand that direct counter-terrorism is a side-show that should play a lesser role in the public consciousness. This is why we're playing our cards so poorly that the fearful demographic has produced more terrorists than we have neutralized.

We cannot win when we cannot see the battlefield, and refuse to use effective weaponry. The only reason things aren't worse is that the other side isn't much better at this game than we are.

Update: Just 3 hours after I wrote this, If found this article at MSNBC:

Five years after 9/11, Arab resentment grows

"Even mainstream Arab professionals, like Jamil M'roue, who publishes and edits Beirut's English-language newspaper, the Daily Star, finds himself caught up in the contradiction of both being appalled by the terror of 9/11 and of applauding al-Qaida when, as he puts it, it gets to the “rabid tiger” that America has become."

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Kicking and Screaming

There's a disturbing trend across the Christian blogosphere. Creative interpretation of the history of science. Let's get this straight. Religion is the enemy of science, and it always has been. Science prospered in spite of religious efforts to suppress it.

Here's how the story goes:

1) Religionist cooks up non-predictive fairy tale about some natural phenomenon, e.g., lightning strikes. His prescription: do what he says, or, what he says God says. If you get struck by lightning, you deserved it.

2) Scientist comes up with new, predictive, scientific explanation of lightning. His prescription: find shelter, build lightning conductors, etc.

3) Religionist assaults scientist for stealing God's thunder (or lightning, or mojo, or whatever).

4) Assuming scientist survives, his theory is vindicated, lives are saved, there is much rejoicing, etc.

5) After the original stick-in-the-mud religionists expire, the religious establishment embraces the scientific theory as a miracle of God, or as having been forecast by a holy book. Or, they simply claim that all regularity and predictability are gifts from God.

Is religion the power behind science? Of course it isn't. Religion is a parasite that feeds on science.

The thing that's changing today is that history is being more aggressively rewritten by religionists. Some bloggers have told me that Galileo wasn't imprisoned by the church for his ideas about heliocentrism, but because he published his ideas with inadequate experimental rigor. Say what!?! As if this would be okay now that science is God and all. This is just ridiculous. Galileo challenged the Pope's grip on totalitarian power, usurped supernaturalism, and challenged the church's worldview. They locked him up and threatened to kill him. It's that simple.

The same story is played out over and over again. Seeing human physiology as machine, human mind as mechanism, the universe as physics - all these things challenge the role of God and ethereal spirits. Each was challenged as offensive to religious belief, vindicated, then hailed as a contribution of theology.

Religion was responsible for scientific advance in the same way that the Third Reich was responsible for the modern state of Israel. The influence of the church on science is undeniable, but it's not a causative relationship. Religion was dragged kicking and screaming into a scientific world. And it's still kicking and screaming.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Experiences are Axiomatic

There are certain assumptions that are implicit in rational thought. Logical consistency and predictability are two such assumptions. In my past analyses, I have been neglecting another assumption: the assumed truth of observation and experience.

Dreams, imaginations, memories, and illusions may be misleading, but the fact that I have them is always assumed true. The pink flying elephant may not exist outside my imagination, but my daydream of it was real.

If I try to multiply two numbers together, I cannot trust that I will get the right answer unless I also trust that I'm accurately remembering (or experiencing) the two factors. This is analogous to trust in predictability because it is predictability that assures me that the rules of arithmetic haven't changed since the last time I multiplied two numbers together.

In several of my recent posts, I have been commenting on the link between subjective value and truth. I outlined a description of truth wherein we build axiomatic systems from which follow contingent, objective truths, but the axioms that form the foundations of those systems are selected for subjective reasons. This certainly feels true in mathematics, where we are studying the theorems contingent on sets of axioms. The theorems of both Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry are true contingently upon acceptance of their respective axioms, yet we often have no preference for truths in either system.

What I have been seeking is a reason why the axioms of science should be preferred over alternatives, and, with this last assumption in place, I have found it. The assumptions of science are that the world is logical, that it is predictable, and that observations are axiomatic - precisely the axioms of rational thought. A scientific theory is an axiomatic model that incorporates the axioms of past experience. The predictions of the theory are those experiential axioms that can be added to the system without contradiction.

This highlights the problem with supernaturalism. If, in the course of an inquiry, we give up on any of the three axioms (most supernaturalists prefer to sacrifice predictability), then we exclude the possibility of a rational understanding. The word "supernatural" is synonymous with "inexplicable."

Friday, September 01, 2006

Gene Therapy

The National Cancer Institute has demonstrated a cancer-fighting technique based on gene therapy. The study involved only 17 patients, but it sounds highly significant. Each patient gave up immune cells that were genetically modified to fight their cancer. The immune cells were then multiplied and injected back into the patient. Two patients who were expected to live only 3-6 months were cured.