Saturday, December 29, 2007

Libertarianism as Oppression

It occurred to me today that libertarianism is, ironically, oppressive.

Most people most of the time are only concerned about short term gains. What's for dinner tonight? What's on TV? Where will my high school senior go to college? Will my new car have decent resale value in 6 years? Will I have time to grab a bite to eat before the recital this evening? Can I afford to get my foot fixed by the podiatrist?

Only rarely do people consider questions about collective ethics and well being. What should we do about global warming? What can we do to ensure universal access to health care? How can we improve education for everyone?

These collective questions need to be settled collectively. I cannot unilaterally decide how health care should be implemented or how global warming should be solved (or decide if it is a problem).

Humans need informed, collective decision-making. Individuals need to be asked to think about the long term.

How you approach the question of global warming is different when you're deciding what car to buy for yourself versus what legislation should be passed. In the first case, you are asked to consider what your personal comforts will be like for the next few years. In the latter case, you are asked to consider your children's futures. And so the answers you give in each case are different.

I want my sports car, and I am happy to pay the true cost of that decision. However, I don't want to make a futile sacrifice all by myself. For example, I don't want to take the difference between the price of my car and what I think it ought to cost, and contribute it to a private pro-environmental organization that may never make any progress. I will just be cheating myself out of the cash. But if I know that everyone will pay a price, I will think the deal is fair.

Likewise, if I buy a hybrid, I'll pay a bunch more and do very little to affect carbon emissions by myself. I may make a statement with my purchase, but that's not an effective way to solve the problem if only a few percent of buyers buy hybrids. The only way to make the sacrifice effective is to enact legislation that will ensure that there will be enough hybrid purchases to make a positive difference to the environment.

Libertarianism wants to strip us all of the option to make these sorts of collective decisions, i.e., strip us of the right to make binding decisions about our long-term future. So, ironically, libertarianism is a form of oppression. We are not allowed to engage in collective decision-making, but instead we must all sit idly by while the people of the world thinks only about what it wants on its pizza tonight. In a libertarian society, we're not allowed to organize people to make binding decisions.

The only people who get to make binding decisions are those with the personal economic power to make a decisive difference. Who are they? They are the billionaires and the CEO's who run the worlds largest cartels and corporations. Libertarianism is great for them.

Of course, there is a long litany of other reasons why libertarianism is flawed and impractical, but this argument seems like it may be the most compelling of all.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Non-thinking things can't see subjective attributes

Is morality objective or subjective (relative)?

To answer this we have to be specific about what the question means. When I perceive a property of a thing, that property could be in the thing itself, or it could be an attribute that is "painted on the thing" by my mind.

For example, I might say that a particular building has many properties including these two: it is 100 feet in height, and it is tall. If I were from rural Kansas, any building over 50 feet in height would be tall to me. However, if I were from the city of Chicago, a building would have to be over 500 feet in height for me to consider it to be tall. So it is quite obvious that my personal history determines what is tall, whereas height is unambiguous, no matter where I come from. Height is objective, but tallness is a property my mind subjectively paints onto objects with height.

Now, there are two ways I can establish the objective/subjective nature of an attribute. I can positively show that an attribute is objective by finding evidence that the attribute is independent of subjectivity, or I can positively show that the attribute is a subjective property generated when a mind sees objective attributes of other things.

In the case of tallness, we certainly have positive evidence that tallness depends on where you come from and what experiences you have had. We can predict that anyone who has not seen a building more than one story tall will think that the Empire State Building is very tall.

But what would be considered positive evidence of objectivity?

I realized last night that subjective attributes are invisible to non-thinking entities.

Suppose I hold a conical projectile in my hand. The projectile is 10 centimeters long and has a mass of 1 kilogram. I fire it at a metal plate, and the way the plate behaves upon impact depends upon the mass. Yet the plate has no subjectivities of its own because it cannot think. If the mass were a subjective attribute painted on the projectile by my mind (e.g., say, if all 10cm conical objects subjectively feel like they are 1 kilo masses), then why should an inanimate target care about my subjectivities?

One might suggest that the apparent attributes of the debris are also subjective inventions, and that is why they appear correlated. However, this would be rather a coincidence. And we can establish increasingly complicated experiments that will force us to argue for increasingly bizarre coincidences should we stick to the idea that mass is subjective. Thus, we have to give up the idea that mass is a subjective quantity.

Furthermore, we can devise ways to hide from us every attribute of a projectile except for its mass. In that case, it cannot be that mass is some subjective mental decoration we apply to objects with other objective attributes (like size, shape or color).

Yet, with morality, there is no similar evidence of objectivity.

There is no way to create a curtain through which only 'evil' passes. If we could do so, we would have strong positive evidence that evil was objective and not some invention of our minds.

Also, there's no evidence that good and evil affect the environment. If an evil act occurs, it leaves no trace on non-thinking entities. A barrel of oil that was stolen burns as long and as brightly as a barrel of oil that was fairly obtained.

While there may be theories of morality (e.g., the Golden Rule), these theories predict nothing but our own subjective feelings and tendencies. They are not like objective physical theories that predict the behavior of non-mental entities. Rather, moral theories predict the behavior of mental entities that have subjectivities.

In addition to this lack of evidence for the objectivity of morality, there is a growing mountain of positive evidence for the psychological and evolutionary nature of moral perception.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dompamine and superstition

Sharon Begley writes in Newsweek:

As scientists probe deeper into the brain for what underlies superstition, they have found a surprising suspect: dopamine, which usually fuels the brain's sense of reward. In one study, two groups of people, either believers in the supernatural or skeptics, looked at quickly displayed images of faces and scrambled faces, real words and nonwords. The goal was to pick out the real ones. Skeptics called more real faces nonfaces, and real words nonwords, than did believers, who happily saw faces and words even in gibberish. But after the skeptics were given L-dopa, a drug that increases dopamine, their skeptical threshold fell, and they ID'd more faces and words as real. That suggests that dopamine inclines the brain to see patterns even in random noise.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Physical Abstractions

Over at Victor Reppert's blog, I've been confronting a form of the argument from reason (AfR). The AfR takes many forms, but the basic scheme is to say that there's something about the process of inference that makes it impossible to explain with any naturalistic model.

In this particular case, the AfR argues that inference is invariant across all possible universes, and that means that inference is physics independent. The argument then says that a thing that is physics independent is non-physical, and, therefore, no naturalistic theory can explain that thing.

I find it easy to see that this argument fails because I can cite counterexamples. The best one I have found so far is the concept of a plasma. A plasma is a high-density, high-temperature state wherein bound states in a medium lose their identity, and the medium becomes a soup of bound-state components and force-carriers. An ionic plasma is an ionized gas, of the type you find in a neon light. In an ionic plasma, atoms become unbound, and you get a soup of electrons, ions, and photons.

However, long after we learned of ionic plasmas, we discovered that there might be quark-gluon plasmas (QGP). In a QGP, we have a soup of quarks and gluons instead of bound nuclei. The physics of QGP, known as quantum chromodynamics, is completely different from the physics of ionic plasmas, which are electromagnetic.

This means that plasma is an abstraction that is physics independent. Indeed, we can imagine very different universes that would support plasmas. Yet, if the ability of an abstraction to apply across universes with different physics were a sign that the abstraction were non-physical, we would have to conclude that plasmas were non-physical. Clearly, plasmas are physical phenomena, and so the premise about the physical portability of abstractions is false.

Here is a systematic dismemberment of the argument. The argument goes like this:

1) We can abstract the possibility of other lawful universes.

2) In every abstraction of a lawful universe, there is a different set of laws.

3) However, every such universe contains common set of laws that establish non-contradiction. (Without these, the laws would predict an outcome and its negation, and not be laws at all.)

4) The conditions under which one classifies an inference as valid are common across every universe. In other words, inference is a specification that is independent of all the laws in the universe except the common logical laws.

5) Premise: Assume that minds in our universe are the result of physical processes of our universe.

6) Any physical system that meets a non-physical criterion must be portable across universes without changes.

7) Minds in our universe would cease to function if physical laws were changed. That is, changing physical laws of our universe without changing anything else in our universe (e.g., the structure of brains), would result in systems that no longer meet the specification for a mind that makes correct inferences.

8) Physical minds are not portable across universes without breaking the criterion or requiring redesign.

9) Therefore, due to (6), assumption (5) is incorrect.

This argument fails because (6) is false.

(6) is false because we can imagine more counterexamples like the following. A "hammer" is an example of an abstract, non-physical criterion that can apply to matter. A hammer is something that amplifies hardness and pressure with kinetic energy. Hammers can exist in a great many universes. Consider a universe slightly different from our own, one in which Iron is a liquid or a gas. An Iron hammer in this alternate universe would no longer meet the abstract criterion for being classified as a hammer. However, in the alternate universe, we could make a hammer with a brass head that meets the abstract criteria. Clearly, physical specifics do not have to be portable across universes for there to be physical implementations in other universes. There will certainly be universes that cannot support hammers, but this is not important.

There's another confusion buried in the argument. What does it mean when we say that correct inference is fixed in all lawful universes? Presumably, these other universes do not actually exist, so we are not referring to physical universes. Rather, we are referring to abstractions. We are saying that if we create an abstraction for another universe, that abstraction is subject to rules of inference. Hence, the very portability of inference is not across physical systems, but across abstractions of physical systems. That is, a mind needs to be able to port inferences across its own abstractions. Here's the experiment. If I create a physical implementation of a mind, and that mind creates abstractions for other universes, then that mind must be able to apply rules of inference to its abstractions of other universes. That's the burden a physical mind has to meet.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Eliminative Reductionism

Quoting Paul & Patricia Churchland, Victor Reppert describes three kinds of reductionism: conservative, reforming and eliminative reductionism (ER).

Victor cites examples of the three different types of reductionism. However, I noticed that one of these examples is not like the others, and two of these examples are kinda the same!

The reduction of temperature to mean kinetic energy is given as an example of conservative reduction. Let's look at what these terms are. Temperature is something that is sensed more or less directly. Temperature is not an explanation. Temperature is simply being explained by the reduction to mean kinetic energy.

The reduction of Newtonian mass to relativistic mass is cited as an example of reforming reduction. Mass (or, weight, at least) is directly sensed, like temperature. Mass is not an explanation. The reduction replaces on explanation with another that is simply more precise.

The cited example of eliminative reduction is the replacement of phlogiston in favor of chemical oxidation. However, phlogiston isn't directly sensed. Combustion is sensed. Phlogiston is an explanation for something sensed (the combustion), and one that happens to be wrong. In this case, the eliminative reduction completely eliminates one explanation that doesn't work and replaces it with one that does.

We see a pattern here. Reduction is a form of explanation. Either we:

a) Introduce an explanation for something sensed, (conservative reduction)
b) Refine an existing explanation for something sensed, (reforming reduction)
c) Replace a failed explanation for something sensed with an effective explanation. (eliminative explanation)

The problem arrives if we mistakenly think that ER replaces the thing sensed with an explanation instead of replacing the faulty explanation for that sensed thing. I believe this is the mistake made by dualists when they cite ER in their arguments.

ER is invoked by dualists who claim that the reduction of certain human mental qualities to material systems eliminates those qualities. The argument sort of runs like this:

1) I feel X.
2) X is explained by a physical theory.
3) X is eliminated because it is merely the action of atoms (or whatnot).
4) Ignoring X as a delusion is unimaginable or threatens my ability to perform this syllogism.
5) Therefore, it is better to trust (1) than accept (2).

The flaw in the argument is in step (3). The direct sensations and experiences are not eliminated by ER. They are explained and predicted by ER. The only thing being eliminated are competing explanations that don't fare as well.

Let's look at free will in particular. Here' I'm talking about free will as a sensation or direct experience, not as an explanation for experiences.

The direct experience of free will is this: I perceive a selection of possible actions, I predict the outcome of each possible action, choose the action that I prefer, and see that my choice generally results in the intended effect. In this way, my choices have made a difference, and I have displayed apparent agency.

If my thinking process and my preferences were shown to be material mechanisms, this direct experience is unaltered. The direct experience is simply explained in terms of a prediction of physics. Free will is not eliminated.

What is eliminated? What is eliminated is the "idea" that there is some alternative to determinism and randomness known as "free choice". Yet this idea of "free choice" is not a direct experience. We don't directly sense that the world is non-deterministic. Rather, "free choice" is a supposed explanation for our actual experiences. (I hesitate to call "free choice" an explanation at all because it is neither predictive, nor logically coherent.)

So, a mechanistic theory of mind does not eliminate direct experiences free will. It eliminates a faulty and incoherent explanation for those experiences. And it is the role of every good explanation to displace poor ones.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The surge is working! So let's draw down troop numbers!

Yes, the Bush plan is just sooo coherent.

I don't know whether we should get out of Iraq now, or wait until we get a Democratic president. A withdrawal will require a major diplomatic initiative, and Bush has neither the competence nor the credibility to pull off anything remotely diplomatic.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

I was just searching for A.J. Ayer quotes online when I came across this brilliant idea at Everything2 by one Rose Thorn:
There are those who caricature Ayer (And the other Positivists), saying "AJ Ayer said that 'Any statement that is not empirically verifiable is nonsense'; Unfortunately this statement isn't empirically verifiable, therefore it is either untrue or nonsense." They are ill-educated cockweasels, fatuously trying to score points.

Ayer considered statements to be "literally meaningful" if they were either empirically decidable, or if they were analytic statements. Analytic statements are statements concerning a formal system. These systems need to start with certain postulates and definitions. The definition of literal meaning is just that: a definition that underlies the entire Positivist discourse.

If you find anyone caricaturing the positivists in this way, kill them. It's better for all of us. If you are a beginner at this, the best way is with "Language, Truth, and Logic" (The revised edition with the giant introduction acknowledging the flaws in the work).
LOL! I love it!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Intuition and Explanation

What is an explanation?

We start from an intuition about the relationship between a proposition and a phenomenon.

For example, regarding the phenomenon "car crash." We notice a pattern in which the proposition "the driver was drunk" relates to the car crash phenomenon in a way that "apple pie was in the trunk" does not.

Another example, regarding the phenomenon that the "floor is slippery." We notice that "floor is brown" does not relate to the slippery floor phenomenon in the same way as "floor is wet."

We call this relation "explanation." This is our starting point. It is the primary intuition that there are explanatory relations.

The next step is to try to devise a formal definition of an explanation. Our formal definition should account for why "drunk driver" explains "car crash", but "pie in trunk" does not. Though our formal definition may be inspired by intuition, our definition should work without direct reference to intuition when examining any particular case.

In devising a formal definition of explanation, we must account for other intuitions about explanations.

First, it is intuitive that not everything is explained. If everything were explained, we wouldn't need or notice or search-for explanations. There is a distinction to be made. Some things are unexplained.

Second, I think it is intuitive that "car crash" does not explain "car crash". Restating the phenomenon does not make an explanation.

Third, it is intuitive that there must be some relevancy between the explanation and what is being explained.

These intuitions can come into conflict.

Our gut might tell us that "X explains Y, where X is defined as that which explains Y." However, this gut instinct would contradict the other intuition that trivialities are not explanatory. Upon reflection, we see that X merely labels the explanation without saying what it actually is.

This conflict is one reason why we want formal definitions of explanation. The idea is that we can at least classify explanations into types according to their conformance with all of our intuitions.

My claim is that the triviality intuition is more important than the primary intuition. The primary intuition tells us that there is a distinction, but the other intuitions tell us more specifically what isn't an explanation.

If we accept trivial explanations, we are saying that everything is at least a little bit explained automatically just by restating what it is we're explaining. I think we would be fooling ourselves if we accepted trivialities as explanations.

This is why prediction is a good formal criterion for explanation. It demands that an explanation be relevant to the observations by predicting them, and demands that the explanation not be a restatement of our observations. It also accounts for the fact that some phenomena remain unexplained because we lack predictive models of those phenomena.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Worldviews and Progress

I think there's a very strong correlation between one's religious and political outlook and one's perception of historical progress.

There's always room for improvement, but I don't think you'll find any reasonable metric by which man has failed to make progress on a per-capita basis. Wars are less deadly (even accounting for the Holocaust), torture is less common, health is better, psychiatric treatment is better, people are less likely to fly into a rage, people are less likely to approve of murder (or rape or torture) by their own tribe, there's less crime, a lower infant mortality, more opportunity, far better labor conditions... the list goes on and on. Quality of life is improving dramatically.

Consider a recent story I heard on the radio. Authorities are shocked that the U.S. rate of maternal death during childbirth spiked to 13 per 100,000. Tragic indeed. But at the start of the 20th century, the rate was about 1 in 100. It's almost 100 times better today than it was a century ago. And the rate is thought to be increasing because, among other reasons, women have the option to have children later.

There are certainly new dangers. We now have an ability to destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons. And, if nukes were in regular use, one might be justified in citing a lack of progress, but they haven't been used since their debut. They guaranteed the peace for decades.

And yet I have noted a cynicism on the part of right-wing and religious bloggers. In a recent comment here, someone suggested that the Dark Ages were no worse that the present age. What a bizarre statement.

How is it possible for an informed person to maintain the perception that we're not making progress?

Perhaps the detractors find the dynamics of modern society scarier than the world we leave behind (with its myriad of ills). Yet, this, too, would be a strange phenomenon. Would anyone truly be so disturbed by the modern world that they would be more comfortable living in a society where disease claimed 50% of children before adulthood? Is the freedom of their neighbor to watch pornography worse than slavery? Is their own freedom to watch pornography worse than the black death? One has to wonder.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Enemies of Reason

Richard Dawkins has a new TV show in the UK called The Enemies of Reason.

You can see it now on YouTube. It's great stuff. Let's hope that PBS picks this up.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Richard Carrier: One of the most important voices on the Internet

On his blog, Richard Carrier takes on an evil and insidious scheme to rewrite history. Christian authors and their supporting bloggers are becoming Dark Age deniers.

The Dark Ages are a bit of a problem for Christians. You see, classical civilization had science, mathematics, medicine, roads, irrigation, even democracy in places. But when Christianity became dominant in Rome, all of that came to an abrupt end. Christians, with their demand that no alternative viewpoints be heard, swept across the Western world, destroying libraries and silencing the voices of reason. Not for a year. Not for a century. But for at least 800 years. Talk about a holocaust!

Of course, this tends to look rather bad for Christianity. And for a long time, Christians had to admit that the Dark Ages were not their finest hour (or their finest 7 million hours).

But now, things are different. People aren't paying attention. Christians have learned that if you just keep lying, you probably won't get called on your bullshit. So the Dark Ages are now... a wonderful, conservative breath of fresh air after the irrational exuberance and excesses of the classical age.

There was no Dark Age, they say. People prefer the term "Middle Ages" now. True. But as Carrier says, any time you lose 90% of your knowledge, that's an age worthy of the term DARK!!!

Instead, the Christians tell us that the inventions of the Middle Ages were underrated. They claim that there was dramatic progress, but it just seemed like there wasn't any. Yes, folks, roads were an expensive luxury, an excess of the Roman era!

As a physicist, I can tell you that the sciences were pretty much died when Christianity put its boot on Europe's neck. There's a long litany of Greek advances, followed by nothing until the Renaissance. And those advances made in the Renaissance were imperiled by the church. Christians also say that the church was not against Galileo's work, only Galileo's bad attitude, and his sloppy experimentalism. Yeah, that's what it was. The church was so concerned about systematic error and statistics that they put Mr. G under house arrest for publishing his results. Funny thing is, the church also banned any mention of heliocentrism. Puts the revised Christian history of science to shame for the lie that it is.

I could go on all night, but it's better to read some of Carrier's posts (especially here and here) on the topic rather than getting everything second-hand from me.

This is scary stuff. Don't let the revisionists excise their injustices from the historical records.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Progressive Naivete

There are a lot of Democrats and progressives lamenting the recent House decision to permit further government wiretapping without FISA oversight. Unfortunately, a lot of these well-meaning folk are calling the Democrats spineless surrender-monkeys. That's EXACTLY what the Republicans want. It's self-defeating and naive for progressives to strike at their own people in the name of ideological purity.

The recent bill is a 6-month stop gap measure. This is not the ideal outcome, but it's good strategy on the part of Democrats (and maybe better policy than having no surveillance at all). There's no point in Reid and Pelosi spilling valuable treasure just to go down in PR flames at the end of the day.

We should be playing up the story that Bush is threatening the Bill of Rights in the name of national security, and that the Democrats are taking the mature, sophisticated, nuanced and responsible position.

Knock the party on pragmatic grounds, if you must. Spin the results in your favor, and elect Democrats in 2008. Once we have a veto-proof majority (or a Democratic president), our government will start to look more like the humane, responsible and competent one we deserve.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Intuitions of Free Will

This is a rehash of a comment I made at Thinking Christian earlier this week.

Theists at TC argue that our intuition is that free will is incompatible with determinism (or determinism plus randomness). Consequently, they argue that free will cannot be physical. However, I think they confuse two intuitions.

Let's distinguish two circumstances:

(1) Irrelevant Choice: a final state arrives, no matter what choice you make.

(2) Deterministic Choice: your choice was fixed by past states of affairs (your preferences and computing ability are fixed by the past).

Do you see a difference between these two?

In principle, cases (1) and (2) might occur from time to time whether the universe were physical or not.

Irrelevant Choice could occur under supernaturalism, e.g., if an asteroid is about to hit your house, your choices won't stop it under physicalism and won't stop it under supernaturalism.

Deterministic Choice is typically associated with physicalism, but could happen under some forms of supernaturalism too.

However, Irrelevant Choice does not always occur under supernaturalism, and does not always occur under deterministic physicalism. Under deterministic physicalism, I still make decisions and can often prevent things from happening by my desire to avoid a final state, even if my choice and action could have been forecast in the past. I am aware that my actions and thoughts are affecting the future, and this awareness deterministically alters my course.

I think theists confuse Irrelevant and Deterministic Choice. Under Irrelevant Choice, though I still wouldn't say that I don't have any agency, it might be fair to say that I don't have effective agency vis-a-vis the inevitable event. That is, my thinking process, whether deterministic or otherwise, cannot stop the event.

But Irrelevant Choice isn't what physicalism entails. At least, it entails it no more frequently than supernaturalism.

Physicalism often entails Deterministic Choice, but it doesn't deny agency, the self, or decision-making capability.

Here's one more way to see the difference between the two cases. In Irrelevant Choice scenarios, the final state is consistent with any choice you make. (For example, the surprise asteroid will impact no matter what you decide.) However, in general, under Deterministic Choice, the final state must be consistent with your choice.

I look forward to getting a response from the folks at TC.

When Theism Is Like An M.C. Escher Drawing

There's a form of argument I've seen from theists that drives me bananas.

It generally takes this form:
Skeptic: To the extent that we can apply reasoning, I can prove X, given Y. We all agree that Y is the case, so X is the case.

Believer: I agree that Y is the case, but I deny X.

Skeptic: You object to my proof?

Believer: No. I deny your ability to apply reason to the problem.

Skeptic: Are you saying the world is illogical?

Believer: No. The world is logical.

Skeptic: You are agnostic about X?

Believer: No. I deny X.

Skeptic: Well, if you deny our ability to apply reason to the problem, how do you obtain a reasoned inference to your disbelief in X?

Believer: It's an inference to the best explanation.

Skeptic: Huh? How can you have an inference without reason?

Believer: I have lots of reasons to disbelieve X. But I still deny your ability to apply reason to the problem.
How does this sort of defense work?

The Alleged Limitations of Models
People are used to thinking that symbolic reasoning is very limited, and cannot be applied in many circumstances. Many times in debates, theists have argued that human thinking and behavior cannot be modeled statistically. This is false. The actual fact is that human behavior cannot be predicted with total precision (at least not yet), but that's not the same thing as statistical modeling. For example, if it were Freaky Friday, and your wife swapped bodies with your daughter, you would likely see the difference because their behaviors would deviate from the statistical norm. Indeed, without statistical models, there would be no such thing as personality.

Unwillingness to Question Assumptions
The theist's denial of our ability to model a thing is common whenever the thing is allegedly magical. According to most theists, humans are magical because they have magical free will, magical reasoning ability and magical moral sensitivity. It's fair to say that the theist's intuition is that these things are magical. That is, it is a natural, unjustified belief that free will is magical.

Yet, philosophy is all about questioning our beliefs. If a belief is not formally justified, we ought to question it. In the case of free will arguments, theists argue that our experience free will requires that the world not be deterministic. This is unsupportable because, if the world were deterministic, no one would notice the difference.

Circular Argumentation
When I am able to make a very persuasive Bayesian probabilistic case for my position, my argument is rejected because the odds have been tipped in circular fashion. This applies across their entire world view.

There are generally three categories of evidence that are cited by believers: historical, personal, and philosophical. None of these alone has persuasive force, and some theists admit that you have to examine the big picture. Unfortunately, this big picture examination consists of circular reasoning.

It goes like this. Examine the historical evidence. The evidence, say, for the Resurrection of Christ, is utterly abysmal. Even if we thought the odds of the Bible being a fabrication were a million-to-one against, we would still rationally have to believe that the odds of the Resurrection were at least a thousand-to-one against. "Ah," say the theists, "that's only if you ignore the philosophical and personal evidences! However, I don't have time to go into them all in this discussion of historical evidences."

Sounds potentially reasonable. Yet, when we discuss the personal evidences for miracles, and I point out that it is irrational to believe that a particular event was an answered prayer, the theist refers me to the philosophical and historical evidences (which they can't go into at that moment).

And, of course, when we discuss the philosophical arguments, we are told that symbolic rational inquiry is useless, just as it is when applied to the historical and personal lines of evidence.

The theist world view is like an M.C. Escher drawing. Each line of evidence looks as if it's supported by the other two lines, but in the grand scheme, none of the lines can support themselves.

Is there still a refuge left for the theist? One might argue that every world view relies on some unprovable statements. I think this is so. My unprovable truths are the axioms of rationality. I'm happy to state them, and happy to admit that I can't rationally prove the laws I use to reach rational conclusions.

However, the arguments against the theist's lines of evidence are not just neutralizing. They're destructive. For example, it's not rational to believe that it is likely that Christ was resurrected, or that the sunny weather is God's answer to a prayer, unless you're willing to believe lots of other improbable things are actually the case.

While the theist can't make a case just from the axioms of rationality, the theist could add in some new axioms. One axiom could be that, say, Christ was resurrected, even if, by the evidences, that's improbable. Another would be that, when I feel like a prayer is answered, it is answered. If these axioms are added to the theist's world view, the evidences will support their conclusion.

I think it's clear that this is a losing proposition. I can prove any conspiracy theory I want by resorting to additional axioms that have no supporting evidence. For example, a theory that JFK was shot by Martians can always be rescued by proposing the axiom that Martians exist, and the axiom that they have it in for any leader who meaningfully supports the space program. But this is absurd.

Sure we can always get to a conclusion by proposing axioms that make the conclusion necessary. We don't do it because, if we did, we would suck all the utility out of rational inference. The utility of rationality isn't merely in its ability to portray a consistent picture. It's power is in its ability to tell us which picture is more probable.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Universe is Supernatural

What does it mean to say a condition is natural?

It means that the condition was necessarily caused by some prior condition according to a rule. That the natural condition was determined by past facts and laws.

That means that a non-natural (supernatural) condition is one that is not so determined. A supernatural condition is one that is random, and inexplicable. There's no explanation for such a condition because one cannot (in principle) point to any facts of past conditions that predict it.

Naturalism rejects the idea that there are supernatural explanations. That's because it is nonsensical to say that an event is both explained and inexplicable.

As I've said before, the naturalist need not make any strong negative claims about the non-existence of the supernatural. There's no need to say that nothing supernatural ever happens. Supernatural things might happen every day, and those things would appear to us as unexplained events.

Well, I've come to believe that one can say that there may well be at least one supernatural thing: the sum of all laws of the universe. There cannot be any explanation for the universe itself, because that would require some set of external or prior circumstances that determined its state. Yet any such determinant would require new laws, in which case, we're no longer explaining the universe, but only a part of it.

I don't see that my conclusion makes any significant difference to the substance of these debates, but it does help to answer those who recognize that there are some questions that cannot be answered by natural laws. With them I will agree, but that doesn't really help their case. It simply means that there are some questions that cannot be answered at all.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Barbarians are at the gates!

So, I'm visiting a Borders bookstore when I find a really nice atheist-themed end-cap.

I came across Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis, and it's a great book. It makes a lot of the same points I have made over the last few years.

I also read some excerpts of God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I quite enjoyed what I read, but it's not the kind of thing I like to read for extended periods. It's a bit depressing.

This end-cap was in a nice prominent position in the store, so I had a good feeling...

Until I got to the very back of the science section, and was horrified to see three "Politically Incorrect Guides" under the "new and noteworthy in science" end cap.

First there was Tom Bethell's PIG "Science".

This book aims to tell you lies about any science whenever that science contradicts conservative or theistic sacred cows. For example, it promises to bust the "myth" that Darwinian evolution is supported by overwhelming evidence, as 99% of biologists believe it is.

Very creepy indeed, but at least this book looks like it's a joke.

Then there was the PIG anti-global warming book, reassuring that the Earth has been hotter than it is now. Wow! I feel so much better!

I pity the fool that buys and believes any of this trash.

And what compendium of ignorance and stupidity would be complete without a book by Jonathan Wells?

It's the standard Intelligent Design conspiracy theories and distortions packed into one handy paperback.

You know, it did not escape my notice that we can remove one word from the titles of all these books and drastically improve them. (Hint: It's "Politically".)

Fortunately, this end cap was hidden away at the back of the science section, where there was very little room to stand in front of it. Still creepy though.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Aboutness: A Reply to Victor Reppert

Victor Reppert: What is it about one physical state that makes it about another physical state? That's the question being dealt with here.
What is it about a mental state that makes it about a physical state?

Suppose you think of a tree. What makes that thought about a tree?

It seems to me that you know it is about a tree because your thought of a tree is a mental model of past experiences or potential experiences of a tree.

A tree usually has a trunk, roots, branches and leaves and so does my mental model. Of course, I can alter my model of a tree and imagine a tree, say, without roots. But what makes a mental model about an actual tree is my ability to recognize the corresponding tree if I saw it.

In general, it's difficult to model a thing that we would not recognize. The model always has at least some recognizable properties. For example, I can conceive of the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby. Though I may not initially know what the kidnapper physically looks like, I do know what experiences relating to a person would lead me to recognize him as the kidnapper.

So, if we look at a computer (as [the previous commenter] suggests), we can see that the computer's manipulation of Shakespeare fails to be about the plays or the subject of the plays because 1) the computer is not dealing in a model of the subject of the plays, and 2) the computer is (presently) incapable of recognizing what the model of the plays is supposed to represent. The computer has only a stored representation of the play. It has no experiences, nor software for modeling those experiences, so it's file containing the play isn't about the subject of the play.

However, none of this precludes us creating a computer that can model its experiences, and can recognize the implications of its models. We might have to give the computer a corporeal existence (or a simulated corporeal existence) before it will understand what the plays are actually about, but it could be done.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Map: Probability and Miracles

Suppose we consider an event that is extremely unlikely. Resurrection is a good one. About 10 billion people have lived, and none have been resurrected. That means we can put the odds of being resurrected at about 1 in 10 billion.

Then someone claims that a prophet was resurrected, and that this resurrection is so improbable that it must be a case of divine intervention that validates the divine nature of the prophet.

However, the probability that someone makes up such a story in any 100 year period is close to 100% (because every century has its own bizarre fictions). Let's say that a story is so peculiar that we think the story unusual. Let's say that the story is so bizarre that we think it a one in a million shot.

Well, we will find that there's a 1 in a million chance that the miracle is made up, and a one in 10 billion chance that the story is true. That makes for a factor of 10,000 against the miracle.

If we are rational, we have to conclude that the miracle did not occur. It might have occurred, but the odds are so small that it's not worth our consideration.

In general, we conclude that any deity who tries to communicate with us using such one-time miracles is hoping we'll be irrational.


The objection to this claim is that, since Jesus is the son of God, resurrection is not improbable for him.

This is a ridiculously circular argument. Let's go back to step one:
someone claims that a prophet was resurrected, and that this resurrection is so improbable that it must be a case of divine intervention that validates the divine nature of the prophet.
It is because Jesus was resurrected that Christians believe Jesus is the son of God. The so established divine status of Jesus cannot then be the reason why we think he was resurrected in the first place.

Another objection is that my argument rules out resurrection as a divine intervention ever being persuasive. However, this objection goes nowhere as long as the deity keeps on doing the resurrections under laboratory conditions. Yes, I have difficulty believing that illusionist David Copperfield actually made the Statue of Liberty disappear. It's too improbable a miracle. And yet with enough evidence, the statistical weights can be moved, and I can be convinced that Copperfield has the powers he pretends to have. The same goes for God.

Finally, they point out that my argument doesn't disprove the Resurrection with certainty. True, but there are lots of things that are 10,000 to 1 against that we don't believe in. So why believe in the Resurrection?

Stumbling Blocks

Authority, perhaps? The Bayesian argument for the Resurrection was recently described (wrongly) by William Lane Craig, a highly respected figure in Christian circles. I don't think Christians want to call him on this atrocious attempt at statistical argumentation.

The Map: Probability and Evolution

Many people, including myself, have failed to appreciate the degree to which the basic evidence for evolution undermines a theory of design. Common descent is a near fatal blow to any theory of design.

In neo-Darwinian Evolution (NDE), every life form can trace its lineage back to the very first, most primitive life forms. The tree of life has no floating branches that begin in mid air. Everything is attached to the same trunk. More generally, evolution could consist of two intertwined trees of life, but even then, there are no floating branches.

In contrast, a designed tree of life can have floating branches. Indeed, every branch could be floating, or just one, or any number in between. For example, a designer could have chosen to make man (or gazelles) a separate floating branch with no ancestors on the tree of life. Or the designer could have chosen to make each family a different branch. Or each species. Or any combination of the above. There are millions of species, so there are at least trillions of topologies of descent that one can imagine given generic design.

After Darwin made his prediction about common descent, we did not know as much about the fossil record. Nor did we know about DNA and genomes. It was possible that we might have found that humans only coincidentally look like apes, and that we might not have even had DNA. Or maybe apes would have had a triple helix instead of a double helix for their DNA.

That's not what we found. We found that all life appears to trace its line back to a common ancestor. Thousands of research projects have shown this to be the case. We share most of our genome with apes, and we even share accidental mutations, in a pattern that proves we are related by a common ancestor.

Bayes' Theorem demands that we grant NDE a huge boost factor in our confidence, and a corresponding huge suppression factor for generic design. Simply put, there's only one way to do descent with NDE, and (more than) trillions of ways to do it with generic design. And after we look at life, we find life did it like NDE. We should therefore favor NDE over generic design by factors of trillions.

Here's an analogy. I have two boxes. Each box is filled with shuffled decks of cards. In the first box are normal decks of playing cards. Each deck in the second box is special, and contains 52 copies of the Queen of Spades. You don't know which box is which, but you go to the box closest to you. You draw a deck, then turn over the top card. It's the Queen of Spades. What are the odds you're looking at the box of ordinary card decks? Well, though it's unlikely, it's still possible that you went to the box containing ordinary decks, but you're 52 times more likely to be looking at the box of special decks. You cast aside the rest of the first deck and pick up another. It too has the Queen of Spades as the top card. Again, it is possible that this is a box of ordinary decks and that you've just been unlucky. Very unlucky, but it could happen. Eventually, the probability that you went to the box of ordinary decks becomes so small that you have to conclude that you're looking at the box of special decks.

This is our situation. Not saying anything about a designer, we must say that each of the designer's design decisions is equally likely. And yet the evidence clearly shows that the generic designer would have had to make the one design (against trillions of others) that evolution would make.

(I mention a "generic designer" because advocates of Intelligent Design are loathe to say anything about the designer, despite the fact that they have no one in mind but God.)

So, the bottom line is that a generic designer is effectively ruled out by common descent.


The objection to this argument was that the assumption of equal probability for each possible descent design decision in not scientific, but theological, because what God would do is not something to which one can apply probability.

It's really rather perverse that theists first obscure God by talking about a generic designer in scientific terms, but when we try to reason about a generic designer scientifically, we are told we cannot do that without getting all theological. I was also told that the probability of the designer choosing a particular course of descent was "I don't know" and that "I don't know" cannot be plugged into an equation.

When I raised the counter-objection that probability is specifically designed to apply to unknowns, I was taken on a ride wherein the entire field of probability analysis was brought into question.

Stumbling Blocks

Were it to be shown that evolution alone could explain life and our mental faculties, the concept of objective morality would be at risk. This is confirmed by the kinds of discussions that arise when NDE is discussed in conjunction with morality. Therein, Christian theists blame the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin on evolutionary biology, as if the way we developed historically implies a murderous political philosophy.

I hate to bring it back to psychoanalysis, but theists have no answer to the probability argument. They are simply ignoring it because it is inconvenient.

The Map: Objectivity

If you've read the posts so far, you've seen that, for the theist, everything centers on morality. People have to objectively deserve a punishment or reward. This inevitably leads us to ask what is required to establish something as objective.

There are several definitions of the term objective. Objective can mean inter-subjective, i.e., that people can come to some agreement about a convention. However, what we are looking for is a meaning of objective that roughly equates to "true independent of our present beliefs about it." This appears as a desire to know "The Truth" about the world.

We are handicapped because everything that comes through our minds is filtered by our experiences which are subjective. We have no way to know whether or not we are brains in a vat that dream the world as we see it. So "The Truth" as children like to think of it is a non-starter. There is no way to know a truth beyond experience because experience is our window on truth.

However, we are intuitively aware of a distinction between objective and subjective. And we can devise rigorous tests for objectivity and subjectivity.

My claim is that objectivity is a word we give to properties of things that appear to be distinct from ourselves. A good example is taste in food. I like chocolate. We believe chocolate exists objectively, and that it contains fats and sugars. However, my liking chocolate is about my interaction with chocolate, not about the chocolate itself. We would not say that chocolate objectively contains doctor(logic)-likability. We could say that, but then we would obliterate all subjectivity by hiding it in objective likability properties, and that starts to look silly from certain perspective.

So what I am saying is that a subjective fact about a thing is a fact about my interaction with that thing, not about the thing itself. In other words, if you did not know anything about me, you would not be able to fix that fact by looking at the thing itself. Not knowing anything about doctor(logic), you could not fix the doctor(logic)-likability of Doris Day.

The challenge is that it is difficult for me, doctor(logic), to isolate whether a property of a thing is in the thing itself versus in my interaction with the thing. I hear the sounds of a Mozart symphony, and it sounds good. I am objectively sensitive to the sound of the music, but the aesthetic goodness of the sound is subjective.

I proposed two tests for objective properties, one of which is a limited version of the other. In the case of the Mozart symphony, it's possible to sense the sound independent of knowing that it is a Mozart symphony. However, it is not possible to sense the aesthetic goodness without hearing the the whole piece. I cannot sense the goodness alone, but I can sense the sound alone. If I could sense the goodness alone, I would have good reason to believe that the goodness was part of Mozart's symphony, and not simply my reaction to it.

The key to this test is blinding oneself to all but one property of a thing. If we can do this, then we have good reason to believe that this property is part of the thing and not a part of our interaction with the thing.

This isn't proof that goodness is subjective, but it is the only kind of distinction we can make. Were we to assume that the aesthetic goodness of a symphony is out there, but that some poor bastards are blind to it, then we could say the same of any property we can perceive. That would mean that if you like red wine more than white, you could argue that red wine was objectively better, and people who did not like it more were crippled in some way. And presumably, people who prefer white wine ought to seek surgery or counseling for their defect.

Returning to my test, we can try this on all sorts of categories that are normally regarded as subjective and objective and see how the test works out:

Subjective / Objective
Musical taste / Musical sound
Gastronomic taste / Food chemistry
Art taste / Geometry, color, texture
Cultural taste / History, political facts, traditions
Moral taste, justice / Actions, decisions, consequences, law

In these cases, we can see that it is not possible to isolate good art, good food, good culture, good morality, or good music from a thing. Yet we can isolate the objective properties of things in a fairly straightforward way.

For example, I can devise a way to identify the sugar in a food without tasting the food in its totality. I can even make a machine that will detect its sweetness. And yet I will never know whether it is good food until I taste it as a whole.

I described my two tests in detail here.

Now, theists could make (but haven't made) the objection that there are objective emergent properties of wholes. For example, they might claim that the goodness of a Mozart symphony emerges from the whole, and that even a complete analysis of beats and times and tones and structure would not reveal the holistic property of the piece. As a holistic property, this property cannot be isolated from the other properties that are relevant to that whole.

While this objection seems reasonable to me, it doesn't really help. We knew from the start that it was possible for some properties to be objective even if we could not make that distinction. The objection fails because, were we to accept that any perceived attribute of the whole is some objective holistic property, then again we would utterly destroy the subjective/objective distinction.


Alas, there are no serious objections that I have seen.

Theists will say that if there's no objective morality, then eating babies is okay, but since doctor(logic) does not subjectively believe eating babies is okay, eating babies must be objectively wrong. Their arguments are that bad. That's why they insist that moral relativists like myself should never use the terms ought or should.

Of course, they are begging the question to the max. An inherent feature of moral oughts is that individuals will claim one ought to do a thing, and act to enforce or encourage such oughts. This is the phenomenon we are studying. The question we are considering is whether moral oughts are subjective or objective, whether we possess oughts due to accidents of our nature or because we perceive a reality of oughts external to ourselves. It is irrational to then turn around and claim that the phenomenon does not exist unless moral oughts are objective and external.

Stumbling Blocks

Once again, it all comes down to morality. If there is no moral reality, how can we be trusted to do cultural good instead of evil?

The Map: Free Will and Determinism

Free Will and Determinism

We experience free will as
  1. Our having the ability to recognize choices before us,
  2. Predict the outcomes of those choices,
  3. Choose according to our preferences, and
  4. Have our choice make an apparent difference.
One thing that we don't experience with free will is our having analyzed all prior causes of our predicament and all prior causes of our preferences. So, clearly, free will has nothing to do with determinism.


Theists argue that we only have free will if we could make a different choice given identical initial conditions. They will admit that some determinism is required to make reasoned decisions, but they argue that total determinism would preclude a person making a different choice in the same situation.

I have never seen a good argument to back this up, and I don't think that any serious philosopher could support this view. Hume obliterated this old argument centuries ago, and it's embarrassing for humanity that we should still have to waste our time on the argument today.

Just because we would always make the same decision given the same initial conditions doesn't imply that our decisions don't matter. They most certainly do. If we didn't decide the way we decide, then the future would be different. The future is different because we decide the way we do. The theistic argument is like saying that the gravitational pull of Jupiter makes no difference because the gravity is deterministic.

We don't even need to assume that the mind is material. If my decision depends on timeless factors (e.g., syllogisms) , then my decision is still deterministic. I still had to make the same decision every time.

The situation is worse still. If my decision is not determined by the past, then it isn't determined at all. It's random. Indeed, that is the case in which our decisions don't matter and are not meaningful. It's ironic that theists are arguing for a form of free will in which our identities do not matter. And all of this just so that we can by punished for our identities later.

Stumbling Blocks

Theists cannot concede any of these points because, were they to accept them, divine justice most obviously breaks down. For theists, such a conclusion would be absurd in the existentialist sense of the term. People would no longer deserve to be punished or rewarded, and their theology would be pointless.

But the theist's position is inconsistent on two counts, though they may be less obvious.

First, they claim that "free" is a third category after "random" and "determined." This defies logic and the definitions of determined and random.

Second, and more subtly, the kind of freedom they seek robs us of the responsibility that would deserve punishment or reward.

The Map: Determinism and Randomness

Determinism and Randomness

An event is fully determined when every facet of the final state is determined by the initial state. The undetermined facets of the final state are random (a logical complement of determined).

There's a difference between apparent randomness and true or fundamental randomness. Apparent randomness arises when we simply have not found the elements of the initial state that determine the final state. True randomness arises when those undetermined facets of the final state are not determined by anything at all.

(Note: whether or not these distinctions are meaningful is questionable, but I'll get to that in my post on Meaning.)


Theists object that a random event would by uncaused, and that a thing that is not caused by anything else can only be caused by itself. This "self-causation" is absurd, they claim. This argument hinges on the principle that everything has a cause (The Principle of Sufficient Reason or PSR). Yet, this principle is invalid and unjustifiable vis-a-vis causality. There have been attempts to justify it, but the PSR is generally considered to be unpersuasive by modern philosophers.

The reason that it is defunct with respect to causality is that, if some truly random events occur, nothing breaks. Sacrifice the PSR and you won't notice.

The foundational problem with the PSR is that, for it to make sense, you have to stretch the terms 'exist' or 'cause' well beyond their limits. I write about this on my blog here.

A fine illustration of the futility of the PSR comes from Quantum Mechanics. If radioactive decays have a truly random element to them, life (and physics) goes on. As far as I can tell, the only things threatened by abandonment of the PSR are a bunch of untestable philosophical claims.

Conceiving of true randomness (if it exists) is quite a psychic shock. I remember that I rejected it at one time, though I rejected it for aesthetic reasons. However, the shock value of fundamental randomness now makes it a rather beautiful thing to my mind: a harmless idea upon which so few can look without fear.

Stumbling Blocks

Either Christians won't dare consider that the PSR might not hold in every case, or they have considered it and don't like the consequences.

If the PSR breaks down, if determinism and randomness are truly complementary, then there can be no justice as theists perceive it. Persons do not metaphysically deserve punishment or reward because their decisions were either fixed when God created the universe, or were mistakes beyond their control.

A breakdown of the PSR represents a threat to moral reality for theists.

The Map

I've generally had a good time debating theists on the blogs. It has been frustrating at times, but it has also been educational. My online discussions have given me new philosophical insights, and helped me map out the beliefs of theists. In this post, I'm going to attempt to draw this map as I see it. Of course, there will be many theists who will disclaim some of these beliefs, but I only write of what I have encountered.

The people with whom I have debated have not been the Bible-thumpers who can do nothing but quote verses from scripture. All of my debating counterparts have shown at least some rationality, often making the next anticipated move in a debate. Yet all of them seem to stumble somewhere.

In my opinion, none of them can state their foundational assumptions. They have a constellation of beliefs, but many of those beliefs go unquestioned. Theists take many beliefs at face value as self-evident facts. That is, they fail to consider the true implications of giving up certain assumptions, and so they fail to see that those assumptions are not necessary.

Generally, my opponents have had a hard time with definitions. I'm not saying definitions are easy to keep straight, but philosophy is pointless unless you can clearly define your terms and meanings. Consequently, it is common for theists to beg the question and claim that, say, free will is defined so as to be ruled out by determinism. Yet, free will, as we experience it, has nothing to do with determinism. If "experienced free will" is not what they are talking about, then they should at least state this clearly.

I had planned to present the entire map in one post, but I find that it's too daunting a task for a single post. I'll post the points on the map one at a time, and, if I can, I'll post a diagram connecting them all.

Thus far, the topics I want to discuss are:
  • Determinism and the Principle of Sufficient Reason.
  • Free Will
  • Probability Theory: Miracles
  • Probability Theory: Superstition
  • Probability Theory: Evolution
  • Theory of Meaning
  • Arguments from Rationality
  • The Problem of Evil
  • Ontology
  • Moral Progress

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Scientific Atheist

You scored as Scientific Atheist, These guys rule. I'm not one of them myself, although I play one online. They know the rules of debate, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and can explain evolution in fifty words or less. More concerned with how things ARE than how they should be, these are the people who will bring us into the future.

Scientific Atheist


Militant Atheist


Spiritual Atheist




Angry Atheist


Apathetic Atheist




What kind of atheist are you?
created with

Friday, May 04, 2007

Treating the Dead

A fascinating article in Newsweek discusses the resuscitation of the clinically dead:

"After one hour," he says, "we couldn't see evidence the cells had died. We thought we'd done something wrong." In fact, cells cut off from their blood supply died only hours later.

But if the cells are still alive, why can't doctors revive someone who has been dead for an hour? Because once the cells have been without oxygen for more than five minutes, they die when their oxygen supply is resumed.


"It looks to us," says Becker, "as if the cellular surveillance mechanism cannot tell the difference between a cancer cell and a cell being reperfused with oxygen. Something throws the switch that makes the cell die."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


I've been debating over at Thinking Christian for a long time. I was surprised to learn that the Christians there are very superstitious. It's not what I expected.

Some people confuse superstitious belief with belief in the non-material. There's a big difference. Superstition is an alleged way of knowing, not a category about which stuff is known. For example, I can have a superstitious belief about the physical location of missing wedding ring. Obviously, the location of the ring isn't remotely non-material in nature. What makes my belief superstitious is the array of subjective data that I use to reach my conclusion. If I believe that the ring is located beneath an old tire because I had a dream that a pot of gold was hidden under a rubber tree, then my belief is superstitious.

Superstition relies on meaningful coincidence. The number 13 is said to be unlucky. If I win $13 on a slot machine, I anticipate something bad happening. If later that day I lose my wedding ring, I'll blame the loss on winning $13. Yet, had I later found a $100 bill lying on the street, I would not correlate that discovery with having won $13, because the number 13 is associated with bad luck and not good luck. In other words, I cherry-pick significant events to confirm my superstition, so my superstitious belief cannot be discredited through this methodology. Had I won $14, I would be upset about losing the ring, but would just say it was bad luck and think nothing of a connection between 14 and the loss. Superstition is an atrocious way to come to insight about anything.

Superstition seems to be much more powerful when it demands action on our part. We can't really help waking up on Friday the 13th, so most people just go about their day as normal. However, superstition holds more sway over us when we are decision-making. I consider myself very rational and relatively impervious to superstitious thinking, but even I feel a psychological tug when I do only 13 reps in my workout. My gut prefers to do 12 or 14.

Superstition becomes stronger still when ritual is involved. There is anxiety about not performing the ritual, and there is poor methodology in confirming the effect. I suspect that we all have the mental circuitry for this kind of thinking, but not all of us activate those circuits. Ritual supercharges these circuits.

The bottom line is that superstitious belief is a psychological trap, and ritualistic superstitious thinking is a psychological steel trap. Once you fall prey to this kind of thinking, you are guaranteed to have personal, subjective confirmation of your belief. If you believe that prayer will have an effect, it will. You will always find something you can attribute to having said the prayer.

None of this sounds remotely problematic to the theists over at Thinking Christian. I found this surprising. I honestly expected them to be above this sort of self-delusion. I can see how having a superstitious relationship with God would deeply affect their thinking. They are unable to put on the "No-God Glasses" as Julia Sweeney calls them. They cannot objectively consider questions about theism without betting on the number 13.

I wonder whether knowing of the existence of this trap is enough to entice a person to give up superstition.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Living Roof

The California Academy of Sciences is building a new facility in San Francisco. Not not just green metaphorically. The roof will be alive with plant life. I've always thought buildings should be put together this way. And not just because I like the Teletubbies.

See more photos at

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thank Teddy

I just read this paragraph on the Campus Crusade for Christ call-for-prayer:
In times like these we desperately need God - we need God to meet with us, to comfort us, and to give us perspective.
It occurred to me that this works just as well with a teddy bear substituted for God. Better, in fact.

I certainly wouldn't ridicule someone for looking to their teddy bear for comfort. Teddy bears are fine comforters. However, I think it would be foolish and irresponsible to go around pretending that teddy bears were real persons. It would be crazy to believe that when we imagine Teddy saying something, he must actually be talking to us. Or that we shouldn't offend Teddy lest he use his magic against us.

Virginia Tech

I have put posting about this, but I guess it's time to say a few words.

The VT attackwas a terrible event, and my heart goes out to the friends and families of the victims, and to anyone deeply affected by the tragedy.

From what I have read, it appears that the attacker may have been paranoid schizophrenic. Though there were mistakes that were made, it is understandable that the attacker was able to get away with this violence. No one really understood the threat he represented. Any responsible person who had known what Cho was going to do would surely have stopped him.

It's natural for us to look for some course of action that would prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future. The gun lobby and the gun control lobby have both been milking this story as a PR vehicle. The authoritarians want to ban video games, books and movies. The supernaturalists want to blame it on materialism. Early commentators blamed it on muslims or remarked on the value the tragedy would have to terrorists. All very bad form in my opinion.

The way to prevent these things is to look for signs of mental illness, and treat those signs as an extremely serious matter. We can improve security procedures somewhat, but we're not going to give up our freedoms and our way of life in the process.

Accidental Irreducible Complexity

Suppose there is a primitive human settlement on the edge of a dense forest. The forest is very difficult to traverse, especially with equipment. However, the villagers need the fruits of the forest, so they create a pathway through the forest. Eventually, the pathway becomes a road that reaches the other side of the forest. One day, by chance, a villager uses the food trail to take some digging tools to the other side of the forest, where he digs for minerals. There, thanks to his tools, he finds an immensely valuable mineral. Soon, the forest road is used as much for mineral transport as for food. Finally, the village learns to plant nutritious crops in the flatlands near the village, and stops collecting low nutrition foods in the forest.

Now, look at the final state. The villagers are using the road only to transport minerals and tools for digging. Yet, if the road had not existed, they could never have transported the tools to make the initial discovery. It's just too improbable that the village folk would create a road to nowhere at massive expense, transport their equipment along this trail, dig, and find minerals. Since the villagers don't feed in the forest, and have forgotten that they did, this system is apparently irreducibly complex (IC). Not knowing this history, it appears that the villagers would have had to know about the minerals before they built the road and dug for them in the right spot.

By co-opting components of a system that serve alternate functions (nutrition, not just mining), one significantly reduces the improbability involved versus having all the components appear at once. You get the illusion of foresight.

And yet, intelligent design advocates like Behe and Dembski continue to deny that IC systems can evolve through incremental steps. This is willful blindness (or worse). Their claims have been thoroughly refuted, but they continue to make them.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Christianity Hijacked My Axioms!

Suppose we make a rational argument for some conclusion, C. The argument contains a set of premises, P1, P2, P3...PN.

In any argument relevant to our rational faculties, one might be tempted to claim that, since P1-PN contain no explicit guarantee of rational capacity, one ought not have confidence in the conclusion of the argument, because we cannot trust our faculties to have followed the argument in the first place.

At first, such a critique may seem clever, but it's actually total nonsense.

Implicit in every rational argument is an initial premise, P0, which says that we assume that we are rational and that the problem under study is amenable to rational analysis. That is, P0 assumes axioms of rationality, including logical consistency, induction, and the axiomatic nature of our experiences.

Without this implicit premise, no rational arguments would work.

There's a simple way of stating this result. We cannot have a rational argument for the axioms of rationality. Any such argument would rely on the axioms it was trying to prove.

That means that any supposed rational argument that states that God guarantees our rationality (and a world where such faculties are applicable) is circular. In order to find such a rational argument persuasive, I would first have to assume that I am rational in order to prove that I am rational.

Implicitly, a naturalistic argument about origins incorporates P0. If a theist later says "ah, but your argument must make the additional assumption that the naturalistic process made us rational," then the theist would be slipping on a logical banana skin. The original argument, like all rational arguments, assumed we were rational in step zero, so it costs us nothing to reassert this assumption later.

Likewise, any rational argument we make that refers to God also incorporates P0. That means we are immune from atheists asking questions like "how do you know God isn't just making you think you're rational?"

This doesn't mean we cannot critique a rational argument on the grounds that it contradicts the rational faculties upon which it relies. However, in order to use this approach, we have to show that P1-PN truly contradict P0. We have to show that the premises that follow P0 make rationality totally impossible. Accusing an argument of making rationality improbable is not adequate to invalidate an argument on these grounds.

Christianity falsely pretends that the axioms of reason are rationally deduced from the axioms of Christianity. Christians would have us believe that the assumption of their theology grants us rationality, and creates a lawful universe in which science and rationality are possible. This is hijacking, plain and simple. If we did not assume rationality (which includes inductive inference), then the assumption of God wouldn't guarantee anything at all (not even itself).

Monday, April 16, 2007

Controls Are Our Friends

Before we begin scientific or philosophical analysis, we start out with intuitions and preconceived ideas.

However, we can be convinced that our prior beliefs were wrong and unjustified by using blind testing methods. Basically, we devise a test in which we separate the truth of our beliefs from how we feel about those beliefs. In other words, if we are interested in the truth, and eschew self-delusion, experimental controls are our friends.

Well, prayer and religious reflections are anti-controls. They are not just unscientific, they are anti-scientific. By focusing on particular outcomes, or outcomes that have particular meaning to us, we bias all our observations to a preconceived conclusion. We deliberately provide safe haven for any delusions we may have.

Suppose I pray for a good day. Any random event that occurs gets run through a filter. Is it neutral? If yes, then ignore the event. If the event is particularly good, then make a mental note. If the event is particularly bad, refocus the terms of our experiment and say that we were praying for something we shouldn't have prayed for. Or we say that God intended us to learn some other lesson. The result is that our experiences reinforce our superstitious beliefs, no matter what those beliefs happen to be. For example, a black cat crossing your path is said to be lucky in Britain, but said to be unlucky in the United States.

Superstition is a strange attractor indeed. And a very lucrative one for all the crackpot organizations out there that promote superstitions.

Of course, I cannot prove that one ought not delude oneself. I just feel strongly that one ought not do so. If you agree, then you ought to give up your superstitions, and quit pretending that prayers are answered, or that your magic spells are effective, or that your magic is better than placebo. At least not until you've performed some suitably scientific testing to verify your belief.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Powerful Implications of Common Descent.

There's an extremely simple and powerful reason why neo-Darwinian evolution (NDE) is overwhelmingly confirmed by the experimental data.

Suppose I have two decks of cards.

The first deck is sorted in order of rank and suit (two of clubs, two of spades,...).

The other deck is composed of random cards, with duplicates allowed. This second deck could have been produced in any possible way. It could have been arranged by someone who likes twos, or be left over from last night's poker game, or express the first 52 digits of pi using aces as ones. There are lots of possible ways the deck could be arranged.

At random, I place one of the two decks in front of you. You turn over the first card. It's the two of clubs. What are the odds that I placed the first, sorted deck before you?

The answer (using Bayesian statistics) is about 98%. And it's simple to see why. The prior probability we assigned to the arrangement of the unknown deck was spread out over countless possibilities. Meanwhile, the prior probability of the sorted deck was focused on only one. The "sorted deck theory" was bold and made a firm prediction, and was suitably rewarded.

There is a strong analogy between this and the ID vs. NDE debate. The sorted deck is analogous to common descent. The random deck is analogous to ID.

Here's why.

NDE essentially requires common descent. There might be more than one line of common descent to the simplest life, but it is unlikely that there would be more than a handful. Yet, in any case, every life form must trace its lineage back to the simplest life.

In the case of design, this isn't true. There's no reason why a super-intelligent designer/manufacturer could not have designed moles using non-DNA technology, and without inheriting from any ancestor species. Indeed the same is true for every species. Every species could have been uniquely designed. This means that there are billions of possible permutations for separate lines of descent of species.

Indeed, it was once believed that a designer made all the different kinds of creatures as their own special invention. This is a plausible position given that humans often design systems from scratch, and not every system we build was descended by variation from a prior design on a particular technological platform.

So, when we apply Bayesian statistics to this we find that generic ID is effectively falsified, and NDE is overwhelmingly confirmed. DNA evidence is that all life can trace its way back to the simplest life. ID likes to suppose that a designer intervened at each step, but they have already lost the war.

Simply put, there's no reason in generic ID why the designer would, out of billions (or a googol) of possible lines of descent, happen to build life in the one way necessary for NDE.

Of course, ID could theoretically improve its position. If ID can refine its theory so as to explain why the designer chose common descent, then it could narrow the odds.

The analogy in the card experiment would go like this. Suppose I change my theory about the random deck to one that proposes that the non-sorted deck was produced by a person who loved twos. Every one of the 52 cards is a two. In that case, turning over the two of clubs no longer gives us 98% confidence that we're looking at the sorted deck. Rather, we now think that there's only an 80% chance that we're looking at the sorted deck.

However, in creating a competitive theory, I have been forced to make a detailed prediction. This is where ID falls on its face like the fraud that it is. ID advocates generally refuse to make substantive predictions, and if they do make predictions, they don't follow from premises. It's not that ID is inherently unscientific, but rather that ID as it is today refuses to state a theory and place positive bets on the outcomes of experiments. In particular, until ID explains why common descent is observed, they're already at at least a billion to one probability disadvantage over NDE.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Why Determinism and Free Will are Disconnected (mostly)

The following was part of an argument I presented over at Thinking Christian.

Intuition tells us that, from our perspective, we affect future events by examining the choices of action before us, simulating the outcome of each action, choosing the preferred outcome, and executing the chosen action. That's decision-making.

Furthermore, it is intuitive that making a decision often leads to different results than making no decision.

That is, from our perspective, our decisions (or lack thereof) affect the future. That's what intuition tells us. Intution cannot tell us that the universe is non-mechanistic because our intuition is not sensitive to that factor.

If the universe is mechanistic, our decisions still affect the future as seen from our perspective. Our experiences are totally insensitive to the question of, say, whether or not our actions could have been predicted a million years ago.

Suppose that I have weighed my dinner options against my preferences, and decided to eat a hamburger at Wendy's. Suppose that I then learn (never mind how) that the universe is totally mechanistic. Does this mean that I no longer have to act to obtain my Wendy's hamburger? If I do nothing, will the burger come to me as if by magic? Of course not. My decisions still affect the future from my perspective, even if they are not affected from an omniscient point of view. I still have to decide which dinner option I prefer, and execute my tasks in order to get my dinner. If I choose to do nothing, then, presumably, I was predestined to do nothing. If I choose to cross the street and go to Burger King, then I was destined to go to Burger King. The fact always remains that I choose my destiny.

The same would be true if I had magically found out that the universe was not mechanistic. I would act in exactly the same way.

So, from a human perspective, the mechanistic nature of the universe makes not a jot of difference to will, choice and action.

This is why the mythical association between free will and a lack of determinism is just a confusion. If anything, will and rationality rely on determinism.

If one defines free will to be equivalent to a lack of determinism, then one is begging the question. One would be defining free will to be supernatural or perhaps even illogical. Determinism and randomness are logical complements, and there's no third choice which logically delivers the kind of options that supernaturalists seek.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Closet Atheists...

Here's an interesting excerpt from a Newsweek article entitled Is God Real?

As Jews and Christians commemorate Passover and Holy Week in the coming days, the ancient debate over whether God exists goes on. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 91 percent report they believe in God, with 82 percent identifying themselves as Christians. Yet half those surveyed say they "personally know" an atheist, and 47 percent believe the country is more accepting of atheism than it has been in the past—which suggests there may be closet atheists who do not believe but do not wish to say so to a pollster. Other cultural indicators are unmistakable: books making the case against religious belief are selling briskly, evidence that many Americans are entertaining arguments against God and what these authors see as the destructive effects of faith.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Transvision 2007

The Transvision will be in Chicago this year. And guess who'll be there... William Shatner!

Register now!

Keynote presentations by:

Conference Chair

Presentations by:

Here are just some of the topics we'll be discussing:

Day One: Inner space: Transforming Ourselves

  • Longevity, Life Extension, Nanotech, Nanomedicine, Bionics, Biotech, SENS, Cryonics

Day Two: Meta space: Transforming Humanity

  • Environment, Global Warming, Sustainable Housing, Alternative Energy, AI, Robotics, Virtual Reality

Day Three: Outer space: Beyond the Planet

  • Future Humans, Colonizing Outer space, Space Tourism, Future Civilizations