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.