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.